I wasted 20 years of my life chasing utopian energy.
Utopian energy is an imagined form of energy that’s abundant, reliable, inexpensive, and also clean, renewable, and life-sustaining. But utopian energy is as much a fantasy as a utopian society. Seeking the fount of perfect energy allows us to pretend there aren’t real-world tradeoffs between, say, banning fossil fuels and helping people in impoverished nations or between using solar and wind power and conserving natural habitats.
For years, I chased utopian energy. I promoted solar, wind, and energy efficiency because I felt like I was protecting the environment. But I was wrong! Feeling like you’re doing the right thing doesn’t mean you are. I just couldn’t admit it. My sense of identity was tied to my false beliefs about energy—myths that blinded me to what really does—and doesn’t—help the planet.
I’ve loved the outdoors since I was a teenager. I led mountaineering expeditions in Alaska, spent months backpacking in the Rockies, and climbed in national parks. My wilderness experiences led to my desire to protect these beautiful areas. I saw that a lot of people who tried to solve environmental issues worked in academia, nonprofits, or government, but they often failed to understand what it actually took to get things done in the real world. I didn’t want to be one of those people. I wanted to make a real difference.
I believe that to fix something, you need to understand it and that hands-on experience is the only way you can gain understanding. So I started building my knowledge and skills from the ground up.
I went to work in construction to build energy-efficient homes, and I started a company that built composting systems for cities and businesses. I became executive director of an organization that championed green building policies and became CEO of a consulting firm that commercialized clean energy technologies and ran energy-efficiency programs. I then founded a software startup to help promote green home upgrades, and I led business development for a company making wireless power technology.
I learned how to see things not just the way environmentalists do, but also the way utilities, governments, builders, engineers, lenders, and manufacturers see them.
But by 2008, I started to see cracks in my beliefs. The Obama administration had earmarked billions of dollars in federal funding to create jobs in the energy sector, and my company won multi-year contracts valued at over $60 million. Creating jobs and making buildings more energy-efficient were worthy goals. But the project was an utter failure. It didn’t get anywhere close to achieving the goals that the government had set. But what was really shocking to me was how the government refused to admit the project had failed. All of its public communications about the project boasted about its effectiveness.
I started to realize that I had accepted as true certain claims about energy and our environment. Now I began to see those claims were false. For example:
- I used to think solar and wind power were the best ways to reduce CO₂ emissions. But the biggest reduction in CO₂ emissions during the past 15 years (over 60%) has come from switching from coal to natural gas.
- I used to think that the world was transitioning to solar, wind, and batteries. This, too, was false. Trillions of dollars were spent on wind and solar projects over the last 20 years, yet the world’s dependence on fossil fuels declined only 3 percentage points, from 87% to 84%.
- I used to believe nuclear energy was dangerous and nuclear waste was a big problem. In fact, nuclear is the safest and most reliable way to generate low-emission electricity, and it provides the best chance of reducing CO₂ emissions.
It’s now clear I was chasing utopian energy. I was using green energy myths as moral camouflage, and I was able to believe those myths as long as I remained ignorant about the real costs and benefits of different energy sources.
I’ve dedicated most of my life to protecting the environment. But I was wrong about the best ways to do it. I thought I was acting morally and protecting the well-being of people and the planet. In fact, I was harming both.
If we’re serious about tackling climate change, protecting the environment, and helping people climb out of energy poverty around the world, we need to stop chasing utopian energy. Instead, it’s time to be honest about all the costs and benefits of every energy source—wind, solar, natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear.
Here are eight principles that can help us evaluate energy options that will give us the best chance to bring about successful energy reform that protects both people and the planet.
- Security: Does an energy source enable a country to maintain its autonomy? Controlling access to critical minerals and natural resources to make affordable, reliable energy is a precondition for liberty and self-determination. Relying on energy imports or minerals from other countries puts a nation at risk.
- Reliability: Can people and businesses reliably access energy when they need it? A reliable energy system provides power 24/7/365.
- Affordability: Is the energy source easily affordable for households and businesses? The cost of energy affects the cost of everything else. If energy is not affordable, businesses can’t make the products we want, and people will freeze to death in their own homes.
- Versatility: How many different kinds of machines can the energy source power? We need energy to power machines that mine, drill, pave, fly, cut, pump, filter, transport, compact, excavate, grade, and lift.
- Scalability: How many people can use the energy source across how many places? Wind, solar, and water resources are often located far away from where people live and work, making it difficult and expensive to transport the energy to where it is needed.
- Emissions: What are the energy source’s effects on air pollution, GHG emissions, and water quality? Sources of emissions include mining, transportation, and electricity production./li>
- Land use: What are the energy source’s effects on wildlife, habitat, farmland, viewsheds, and coastlines? For example, a typical 1,000-megawatt US nuclear power plant needs little more than 1 square mile to operate. Solar farms need 75 times more land to produce the same amount of energy. Wind farms need 360 times more.
- Lifespan: How long will a source produce energy? Nuclear plants can operate for over 80 years and run for 100 years if they are well-maintained. By contrast, solar panels and wind turbines last only about 20 years.
I’m still on a mission to protect the beautiful landscapes I fell in love with when I was a young man. And I’m still committed to raising worldwide living standards, reducing pollution, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. But my firsthand experience has exposed the futility of chasing utopian energy sources. I’ve learned the mainstream narrative about what we should do to protect the environment will never accomplish those goals.
Now, my mission includes sharing what I have learned to promote energy sources that can be truly productive and lead to a path of actual, effective change.
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