The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy?

by Emil Morhardt

Barack Obama has been busy during his last days in office writing well-documented policy articles for major publications. Barely a week before turning over the Presidential reigns to Donald Trump he has commented in some detail in Science about how, in his view, the clean energy horse has left the barn and is unlikely to be stopped even by it’s most fervent detractors (Obama, 2017). He cites four reasons for believing this. The first is that as the US economy has grown, emissions have fallen; since 2008, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of GDP has fallen by 11%, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy has fallen by 8%, and the CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP has fallen by 18%. Furthermore, worldwide the amount of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2016 were essentially the same as 2014, despite economic growth. He also points out that carbon pollution is increasingly expensive. Given the rhetoric of the incoming administration, though, this reasoning alone doesn’t appear to assure continuing in the same direction.

Second, he notes that the private sector, for its own reasons—largely economic—has begun to favor using renewable energy over fossil fuels, and is investing heavily in it, a topic documented in this blog many times over the past few years. As a result, around 2.2 million Americans now work in the renewable energy sector, as compared to 1.1 million in the fossil fuel sector. Still, though, this was certainly driven initially by policy constraints on fossil fuels, and tax breaks for renewables. which the Trump administration seems likely to roll back, perhaps all the way.

Third, he doubts, along with most energy analysts, that the energy industry will turn back to coal, not least because natural gas prices are lower as a result of fracking. The Trump administration seems likely to favor increased natural gas production, so that fact should not change. More importantly, however, he notes that the costs of renewable energy have fallen so precipitously, particularly those for wind and photovoltaics, that in parts of the US they are already cheaper than coal without any subsidies at all. And no matter what the federal government does, many state governments are going to continue to favor renewables.

Finally, Obama cites global momentum, as evidenced by the Paris Agreement; this too, however, is policy driven and could be as easily reversed, especially if its lead supporter, the US, turns its back on it as Trump has promised to do.

None of this is new news. In the science community many of us suspect that the real driver will be cost, and that there is no possibility that fossil fuel (or nuclear power for that matter—a form of fossil fuel) will be able to compete economically with wind and solar power for energy production in the not-to-distant future. The story is different for vehicle fuels, but if the new Chevrolet Bolt, an all-electric car winning car-of-the year awards all over the place is any sort of harbinger, it wouldn’t surprise me if large solar and wind power facilities will produce the vehicular fuel of choice before too long.

Obama, Barack. 2017. The Irreversible Momentum of Clean EnergyScience 10.1126/science.aam6284 (Published online January 9, 2017)

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