Like the 28 governors and numerous environmental groups currently scrambling to extend wind power subsidies, I long assumed that wind turbines and solar cells offset fossil fuel use. They probably don’t.
Solar and wind power advocates are fighting to renew clean energy subsidies, which expires at year’s end. They argue that these technologies are worth the investment because they offset fossil fuel dependence and carbon emissions. Indeed, that’s the conventional assumption of most energy researchers, government labs, and think tanks. However, there is an emerging problem with that assumption – there’s no evidence to back it up.
In fact, experience and field data point to the opposite: wind turbines and solar cells might not offset fossil fuel use in the United States at all.
The effervescence of renewable energy starts to go flat when human behavior and basic economics come into the picture. Consider hydropower. As recently as 1950, dams quenched roughly a third of U.S. electrical demand. Subsidized hydropower helped keep electricity costs low and demand subsequently increased across the board. Utilities filled that demand by building more fossil fuel power plants, not fewer. Dams have multiplied since 1950 but hydropower now fills just seven percent of the nation’s electricity grid.
It’s a boomerang effect. Subsidized energy induces a downward pressure on energy costs. Demand subsequently expands, bringing us right back to where we started with high demand and so-called insufficient supply. The harder we throw energy into the grid, the harder demand comes back to hit us on the head. Larger solar arrays and taller wind turbines are just ways of throwing harder.
A new paper by Dr. Richard York published in Nature Climate Change draws upon 50 years of energy data to reveal that solar and wind power have not offset a single fossil fuel plant. “The common assumption that the expansion of production of alternative energy will suppress fossil-fuel energy production in equal proportion is clearly wrong,” he concludes.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Renewable technologies would likely hold greater offset potential in an alternate context. However, building more of them today may be doing more harm than good.
First, clean energy isn’t so clean. Alternative energy simply breeds alternative side effects. Solar cells contain heavy metals. Photovoltaic manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, with a global warming potential over twenty-three thousand times higher than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Wind turbines require a dual system – one set of turbines for when the wind is blowing and a backup system to cover still periods – an incredibly expensive luxury. And, alternative energy technologies still rely on fossil fuels. Sunlight and wind are renewable. Solar cells and wind turbines are not.
Second, the glare from alternative energy technologies blinds us to the real goal: reducing fossil fuel use. In the United States, with an expanding population of heavy consumers, alternative energy technologies pose the greatest risk. They supply profligate waste while conjuring an illusion of responsibility.
Finally, directing funds and political attention toward energy production leaves less for research and development into wiser energy strategies. There’s only so much room on the stage.
Should we expect alternative energy technologies to solve problems that are social, political, and economic in nature? We generally associate more energy with greater prosperity. This rubric holds in poor regions. But among industrialized nations, the correlation is roughly flipped. High energy consumption instigates a host of negative side effects and liabilities. As the challenges to wrestle energy from the earth intensify, so will the burdens.
The big renewable energy players, including BP, GE, and JP Morgan, argue that they need subsidies to advance cleaner technologies. But it’s the context, not the technologies, which require attention.
Improving energy contexts will be more enjoyable and less expensive than we might think. Successful regions have shifted from income taxes to consumption and energy taxes. They value architectural techniques that make buildings more efficient and comfortable. They prioritize walking, bicycling, and transit infrastructure. And, they embrace seemingly unrelated initiatives that greatly improve energy security in practice: universal healthcare, streamlined military spending, durable monetary policies, and campaign finance restrictions.
Ultimately, it’s not a question of whether we hold the technological prowess to create a renewable energy society. The real question is the reverse. Do we have a society capable of being powered by renewable energy? The answer today is clearly no. But we can change that.
Zehner is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and the author of “Green Illusions”.
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