Guest Blog Post: Good News, Bad News

*This Posting was written by Rick Phelps is Executive Director of the High Sierra Energy Foundation.  The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of his employer.*

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Mark Twain

No one is really sure that Mark Twain actually said that, but are only sure they sound like the words he might have spoken. Nonetheless, they provide a good lead-in to this story.

The last ten years have been good news for renewable non-carbon energy. Renewable production increased by 22% while fossil energy production increased by less than 1%, including a nearly 40% decrease in coal! Solar photovoltaic and wind grew by more than six times while nuclear fell by 20%. Interestingly, population in the United States grew by 20 percent at the same time per capita consumption rose only 7%, which is indicative of significant efficiency and behavioral improvements. *

The bad news, and the reason for leading with the quote about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story, is that renewables represent only abut 11% of total energy production with the balance coming from fossil fuel production and nuclear. Solar photovoltaic and wind grew from practically nothing to about 3% of the energy mix. Contrary to the “story” in the popular media, solar and wind are not going to meet all of our future energy demand as the generous taxpayer subsidies that fueled this growth, both in the United States and the rest of the world, are unlikely to continue and the land and transmission requirements for utility-scale wind and solar developments will become more restrictive. Granted, rooftop solar will help meet some of the future energy demand, but never at the scale to make a significant impact unless there are significant improvements in technology and cost.

Despite this good news/bad news scenario, there’s a lot we can do to improve our situation:

  • Recognize that energy efficiency is our best and cheapest renewable. Over the last ten years, energy efficiency’s contribution to our energy production was about 12%, coming from technology, utility programs and behavioral change. Efficiency needs to continue to be an important part of our energy equation. In fact, a study by McKinsey & Company (my long ago employer back in the Pleistocene) estimates that energy efficiency can drive down domestic energy consumption by more than 80% over the next four decades.
  • Support the policy initiatives outlined in the White House’s All of the Above Strategy Report. Unfortunately, policy makers, despite bipartisan support, seem to be cherry picking the strategies they like. For example, the White House’s All of the Above Strategy Report of May 2014 states that “nuclear energy provides zero carbon base load electricity, and through the Energy Department the Administration is supporting nuclear research and deployment,” but no mention is made of nuclear energy in the recent Paris Accord on climate change nor was one promoted by the Administration. Makes one wonder as France gets about 80% of their electricity from nuclear power.
  • Understand that not all energy works the same way. For example, one thousand pounds of biomass won’t do much to get a Boeing 737 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but one thousand pounds of fossil-derived jet fuel will. Similarly, electricity for your favorite electric vehicle is not carbon-free, as the electricity is produced from a mix of sources, the majority of which is usually carbon-based. Keeping these kind of differences in mind would seem to be important for future policy development.
  • Consider the difference between science and subsidies. Over the last several years, renewable energy received a lot of taxpayer and utility support in the form of tax breaks, direct subsidies and loan guarantees, among others. Unfortunately, much of this funded developer profits and would it make more sense to use these funds to support additional R & D into renewables or energy efficiency?
To make the most of our energy future and to ensure that there’s always a balance between good news and bad news, we need to keep our eyes open to the energy realities/truths and develop polices that move us in that direction and not just toward photo ops. The White House provides a good outline in the All of the Above Strategy Report, available at the website or through a Google search.

* The source of the numbers in this column is the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s March 26, 2016 report presented in quadrillion British Thermal Units – BTUs.