There will come a time when we view fossil fuels as archaic.
Burning fossil fuels is cheap and easy, but it is also dirty. It brought us into the Industrial Revolution, but burning fossil fuels also has had a severe impact on health and the environment, killing millions of people worldwide and impacting global climate. How much damage will we cause before finding more sustainable alternatives?
China, for one, has already had enough.
In the midst of a health and environmental crisis that has led to 1.6 million deaths a year tied directly to fossil fuel pollution, China has recently decided to scrap plans for 85 new coal power plants.
Instead, China will be investing $361 billion—which is 3.3 percent of the country’s entire GDP—in renewable technology that is estimated to account for 50 percent of new energy production by 2020 and also create 13 million jobs. Assuming they use a trio of hydroelectric, wind and solar power, that investment could account for 14 percent of China’s total energy capacity.
By comparison, if the U.S. made a similar investment—3.3 percent of its GDP—it could account for 44 percent of its total energy capacity and allow the U.S. to be completely energy independent, if desired.
How the U.S. Compares to the Rest of the World
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China is not alone in its mission to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Many forward-thinking countries realize that fossil fuels are finite and that limited global reserves guarantee they are not the energy of the future.
Take Costa Rica, for instance. Last year, 98.1 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity needs were met by renewable technologies, thanks to hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power. In the U.S., less than 15 percent of energy needs were fulfilled by renewable energy. It is important to note that Costa Rica’s electricity needs do not include the transportation sector, which is still very reliant on oil. Nonetheless, it is still an impressive example of renewable energy use.
The U.S. is also falling behind many other countries, such as those in Europe and South America. Today, Sweden generates more than 50 percent of its energy needs using renewables, and—like many other European nations, particularly Latvia, Finland and Denmark—it has its eyes set to reduce or completely eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels by 2050.
The Potential for Renewable Energy
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Despite a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, America has great potential for renewable technologies.
A recent study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded that the U.S. has 65 gigawatts (GW) of untapped potential across the nation’s rivers and streams, which would roughly double the current hydroelectric power capacity.
Estimates for wind power are even more optimistic. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), wind power could supply more than a third of the nation’s power by 2050. And with decreasing costs and a relatively stable market, the DOE estimates that wind power could save consumers $280 billion.
As with any technology, innovative product development can help drive down costs. And no renewable technology has modeled those effects quite like solar. Thanks in part to large investments and financing from China, global solar prices hit their lowest levels yet, making it the cheapest form of new electricity.
That’s right: solar is now the cheapest form of new energy and is outcompeting coal and natural gas in emerging markets.
In developed nations like the U.S. that already have billion dollar infrastructures for fossil fuels, solar may not be the most cost effective form of energy. However, for countries that are looking to build more electricity production from the ground up, solar is now the best way to go.
The U.S. Outlook
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Clearly, the U.S. could become a major player in the renewable energy game if it wanted to.
The good news is that the U.S. is actually moving in the right direction. Of the 24 GW of energy capacity that was added to the grid last year, more than half was from renewable energies largest being solar. If the U.S. wants to keep up with the example set by the Chinas of the world, it should build on this trend rather than, say, try to revive the dying coal industry.
And, like any stable portfolio, diversification is key. Energy is no different. The U.S. currently relies far too much on fossil fuels, which account for a whopping 80 percent of energy consumption. This is unhealthy for the country’s long term interests and an unnecessary risk, given the current state of alternative technologies.
Fossil fuels have brought us this far, and we should be cognizant of that fact. But now, as our collective knowledge has grown, it is time to think about the future and develop technologies that will help bridge the gap to the next age of human development rather than fall back to outdated resources on the road to extinction.
Main photo by Sheila Sund, CC-BY
Joel Rindelaub is an active scientific researcher and Ph.D. chemist based in Minnesota.