Recently the White House tweeted that renewable energy was reaching an all time high in the United States. The implication is that this type of energy is becoming more mainstream, and is beginning to make a difference in our energy mix. I remember back in 2009 when our Vice President suggested we could supplant our entire coal fired generation fleet with offshore wind, it was a ridiculous statement then and this idea still ranks there today.
The United States is rapidly becoming the cleanest of the industrialized nations, or at least the one that is “cleaning” the fastest. Our GHG emissions are dropping and our air is becoming cleaner. We have made great strides on reducing Co2 and are improving in every category. However, it doesn’t take much research to find that the current portfolio of renewable energy offerings is not causing the shift.
One of the biggest causes of air pollution comes from power generation and industrial installations. Our Power generation has always had coal as its backbone and we will rely on that backbone for years to come. Even so, what has changed is the number of natural gas fired power generation plants that have come on line recently. They have been replacing older less efficient coal generators and allowing our base load generation to make the shift to natural gas.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a Vice President, to realize that coal was the low hanging fruit. For years we have talked about “clean coal”, but the myth of clean coal has not been turned into a reality. Think about clean coal as being diet soda. Sure we have gotten a lot of the bad stuff out of coal, but it costs more and it doesn’t work as well.
Here’s the thing, it didn’t take the EPA passing a new regulation to cause the shift to natural gas, the market made it possible. Natural gas is cleaner, but it is also less expensive to build and operate in today’s North America. Natural gas has always been seen as a viable power source, we just didn’t know if we had enough of it. As recently as 2004 in an interview with then CEO of Southwestern Energy, Harold Korell, he told me that he would be pushing natural gas as the solution, if only we had more of it. He was concerned that we would begin massive imports and that our economy would be reliant on foreign gas.
I heard similar stories from the head of DuPont’s energy group. They were rapidly moving their plants out of the US and locating them as close to cheap gas as they could. Today, thanks to the low cost natural gas in the US those plants are coming back and Harold's fears were put to rest.
Aside from the natural gas story we have also made great strides improving our gasoline mileage. Even taking into account that ethanol reduces the distance you can drive a car, just look at the mileage ratings for the 2015 Ford Mustang, they are almost double what the 2005 version could get. Better yet, these cars produce less GHGs than ever before. Imagine what would happen if we took the ethanol mandate out and let the market decide what our fuel mix would be. How long before we saw diesel and natural gas hybrids hitting the dealership floors.
The idea of renewable energy is a good one, can find a way to “Power the Planet” without polluting it, I certainly hope so. However, the current portfolio is not getting the job done. To pretend that it is, is a mistake and to promote and subsidize “proven” technology only stifles the next, better idea. This does not mean that the government shouldn’t promote the use of alternatives, but don’t sugar coat the truth.
We can continue to improve, but there is no silver bullet out there today. We need to continue to pick the best choices for power sources. We need to use a simple formula to do so, cost vs. efficiency, efficiency vs. footprint, and how much pollution does it produce.
When I see a sea of windmills covering vast mountainsides I see progress, but I cannot help but also see a mountain now covered in windmills. When the desert floor is covered in solar panels I’m impressed by the technology harnessing the sun’s energy. But I have also seen the YouTube videos of the birds literally being scorched out of the sky.
Currently we run 95% of our transportation on hydrocarbon energy. Can we change that, sure we can. But we need consider the cost and the impact in other areas. We produce our power with 22% from Nuclear, 35% from natural gas, and 40% from coal. Can we do better, certainly but the greatest impact comes from switching to natural gas and nuclear.
Lets be honest with ourselves as we search for the next great power source and lets incrementally move forward and not forget that the market makes lasting changes while the government can lead only the market can push through to the finish line.