Why don’t we switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources without any further delay?
I hear versions of that question all the time and the implication is a sentiment I share. Superficially the answer seems obvious, we have all that free wind and sunshine, let’s just get to it and make the change. True, but like most endeavors, the sheer complexity of the project comes into focus only after you look into the details.
Regional electricity grids, Independent System Operators, petroleum and natural gas pipelines, fuel oil distributors, coal mines, oil barges, liquefied natural gas plants and ports, tanker cars, rolling stock, futures markets, natural gas and nuclear power plants, investor held utilities, cooperatives, residential and business consumers, state regulators and public service commissions, emerging wind farms, rooftop solar, geothermal and energy efficiency programs; the energy system is among the most complex thing humans have ever created.
It is indeed a thing of wonder.
The U.S. energy system delivers heat and hot water to our homes. It powers our appliances, computers, lamps, phones, televisions, air-conditioners, street lights, radios and the internet. It makes cars, trucks, buses, and airplanes go. It connects people, enables markets, fuels businesses, and supports local, regional, national and global trade and communications networks that make the modern world modern.
And it has been constantly evolving for at least 150 years; from wood to coal, from water wheels to steam engines to gasoline powered internal combustion engines, from coal fired to natural gas power plants, to a million solar roofs and a thousand wind farms.
There is little doubt the entire world will make the full transition to clean energy by the end of this century. However, under even the rosiest scenario there will be significant climate disruptions driven by previously emitted greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the cumulative additional emissions over the next two to three generations. It will require economies, businesses, governments, and our society to adapt to new climatic conditions.
People and businesses can hasten this inevitable transition by making clean energy choices in their own lives and by pressing local, state and national officials to institute policies that put a price on carbon (e.g. a carbon tax) and other GHGs. A correctly designed tax that is cost neutral for lower and middle income people, but directs a portion of the revenue generated (from higher income consumers) into renewable energy subsidies, could reduce the transition time by a generation or more. With the right policies in place future generations can enjoy the luxuries and conveniences of a modern energy system without damaging the one system from which all others flow, mother earth.