Moving to a Clean Energy Economy

Moving to a clean energy economy, and away from polluting fossil fuels, is essential for the continued thriving our species

Moving to a clean energy economy, and away from polluting fossil fuels, is essential for the continued thriving our species

by Ryan Allis

As we learned in the last section on The Science of Climate Change, it is essential that we move to a clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels this decade. 

I have a dream that someday, we will be living in a carbon-neutral world in which all of our children globally have access to food, water, shelter, education, and medicine. This world of sustainable prosperity, actually, is quite possible. Let me share how we can get there from the energy side.

Here are six key policies changes that you can advocate for in your country.

1. Stop Subsidizing Fossil Fuels

Each year in the United States, our government, using taxpayer dollars, provides $11.5 billion in subsidies to the oil industry. Those are 2010 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This needs to stop immediately. It is counter-productive to the future stability of our civilization to subsidize fossil fuel polluters.

2. Price in the Cost of CO2 Pollution

We need a carbon pricing system that charges carbon polluters the full cost of the pollution. If we had such a price mechanism, we could use a true market economy to provide market prices instead of the current subsidized economy that is artificially keeping fossil fuel prices low. One of the reason fossil fuels are cheaper than they would be otherwise is because the external cost (which is called an externality in economics) is not included in the price of the fossil fuels that create CO2 pollution.

3. Support the Movement to Divest from Fossil Fuel Stocks

There is a substantial movement within college campuses and pension funds to divest their endowments from fossil fuels.  You can learn more at This movement, similar to the South African apartheid divestment campaign of the 1990s, has been successful in raising awareness of the issue of how damaging it is for our species to continue to use fossil fuels.

4. Invest in Renewable Energy Research

We need to invest in renewables research. Wind, solar biofuels, nuclear fusion, and nuclear fusion have great promise and we need to be funding more research in these areas.

Amazingly the sun provides enough energy in one minute to power the Earth for a year. We have a nearly unlimited source of power out there, at least for the next 4-4.5 billion years until the sun goes away. We have billions of years of renewable energy right there. What we simply need are better solar technologies that can take in that energy, store that energy, and distribute that energy.

Algae also have the potential to be the world’s future renewable fuel source. In fact, biofuels produced from synthetic algae are showing great promise right now for renewable fuel production. Algae, by their very nature as an organic living substance, consume carbon dioxide and produce fuel and they only require one-seventh the land of corn-based ethanol. That’s an exciting field that we should be funneling research dollars into.

5. Subsidize Renewable Energy Use

The U.S. Government has been subsidizing fossil fuel production for probably the last 100 years, ever since the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. But in order to increase market investment and renewables in the next few years during the critical phase when R&D is conducted, we need to subsidize the cost of renewable energy and use incentive structures to enable the price of renewable fuels  to be lower than the price of fuels that destroy the world.

Today, humans are using 14 terawatts of power annually. Humans are expected to need 40 terawatts of power per year by 2050, about a 3x increase. As of 2011, fossil fuels provide 86% of global energy; nuclear at 6.5%; hydropower, water power at 6.5%; and solar, wind, and biofuels are still under 1%. We have to re-architect these figures so that renewables are providing more than 80% of our power.

Let’s compare how much the United States spends annually on R&D renewables research as a government compared to how much we spend annually on defense. Each year the United States (2010 figures) spends $706 billion on defense. Most recently, it was closer to $650 billion for the upcoming 2013 budget. According to the US Energy Information Administration, we spend just $1.4 billion on renewables R&D, almost 1/500th of the amount that we spend on defense.

Investing in renewables research and development is directly aligned with our national security. We will see a world that is very unstable if we don’t rapidly move away from carbon dioxide producing fossil fuels in the next couple of decades.

So the United States spends $706B per year on defense, $11.5B on fossil fuel subsidies, and $1.4 billion on renewables R&D. Something is out of whack with those figures. We should increase our annual investment at least tenfold in renewables R&D, if not more, and eliminate our fossil fuel subsidies immediately.

6. Require Increases in Energy Efficiency

Lastly, we need to increase energy efficiency. There are architectural designs now that create efficient buildings that use one-tenth of the energy that the average building uses. We need to have a two-way grid in which we not only can produce power at the power point level but can actually produce a limited small amount of power at local residences and put the extra power back into the grid so that it can better regulate supply and demand. We need smart appliances that turn themselves off when they’re not being used and use energy effectively and efficiently. I believe that our best bet is investing in clean energy from renewable sources to reduce and greatly reduce the likelihood of the damage that is expected from climate change.

Moving to Clean Energy is The “Moon Landing” of Our Generation

The move to renewable energy is effectively President Obama’s moon landing opportunity. In the State of the Union speech in 2011 he said,

“We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams with the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time. At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. In Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil.” –President Obama

The great news is that solar power can produce a lot of the world’s energy needs. Solar power is greatly reducing in cost every year. We’re currently seeing a Moore’s Law-like effect where the cost of solar power is being cut in half nearly every 18 months.

By 2020, solar power will be less expensive than grid power, which is often coming from fossil fuels. That is when we, as a society, reach the critical tipping point. When the solar grid parity effect is achieved, when the cost of solar in terms of the retail cost per kilowatt hour is lower than the cost of grid power, tremendous things can happen. Right now it’s about $0.30 per kilowatt hour of solar at retail and $0.04 per kilowatt hour for grid power from natural gas.

By 2020, it’s projected that those two numbers will meet and the cost per kilowatt hour from renewable sources will be under $0.04 for the first time. We will see soon thereafter a lower cost of renewable power than the cost of fossil fuel power. That point is called grid parity, and when that happens, we will see tremendous market forces move as investment shifts.

Our goal, as a society and as taxpayers, must be to demand that we invest our corporate R&D and our governmental funds to be able to speed up this market effect. It’s a race to grid parity. This opportunity is just as important as—if not more important than—the race to the moon in the 1960s.

In summary, we must quickly reduce our carbon output this decade or face a true human disaster. We must stop fossil fuel subsidies, price in the cost of CO2 pollution cleanup, invest in renewable energy research, subsidize renewable energy use, and increase energy efficiency. If we don’t, we will face the consequences. But truly, this is an opportunity. We in the United States can lead the world.

While the end of fossil fuels will almost certainly be seen in the next 50 years, it won’t happen without technology, innovation, investment, and smart public policy. Thanks for doing all you can to help bring about this new world.