It seems that we've proven ourselves exceptionally able in arguing with one another. The time for that has passed. Nature will act if we don't.

Is our current approach to energy sustainable?

Craig Shields | 2 Green Energy

Is our current approach to energy sustainable?

No, our approach to energy is not in the least sustainable, and for several reasons.  First, let's break this down a bit.  About 30% of our total energy consumption in the U.S. is associated with transportation, almost all the fuel for which is derived from petroleum, i.e., gasoline and diesel. Most of the remainder of our energy is used to generate electricity for a variety of residential, commercial, and industrial purposes, and about two-thirds of which comes from fossil fuels -- a fairly even balance of coal and natural gas.  An additional 20% is generated in nuclear reactors.  There are numerous problems associated with all this. In brief, the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, ocean acidification, lung disease, and it's challenging our national security.  And, as we've all seen, the operation of nuclear power plants is not completely safe, and even if it were, we have no answer to the issue of the disposal of nuclear waste.

If, as a society, we pursue the status quo in energy generation and consumption, the damage to human health and the natural environment will be so severe that we will eventually be forced to stop.  This is what I mean by the phrase "not sustainable."  The sea-level rise from climate change alone will eventually cause some of our largest cities to become submerged, displacing hundreds of millions of people.  Enormous stretches of currently arable farmland will become deserts, causing large-scale starvation.  Mass extinction of a large percentage of animal species will cause enormous chaos in the fragile web of life here on Earth.  Thus I refer to our approach to energy as "unsustainable" because it literally cannot continue, even if humankind is sufficiently reckless, selfish and greedy to wish it to.

What direction does our current approach to energy need to take?

I happen to be among those who see a promising blend of clean energy, as well as energy efficiency and conservation, all coming together to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and nuclear in approximately 50 years, given the current trends in technology development, population growth, shifting demographics, etc. Perhaps best of all, if such an effort would be undertaken, it would, contrary to the propaganda disseminated by the oil companies, cause an enormous boom in the economy, creating millions of permanent jobs paying reasonably good wages. 

What are the most promising new technologies in renewable energy?

There are dozens of possible answers to that question, but if I had to choose one, I might say concentrated solar power, aka solar thermal.  Recent developments here show a great deal of promise for a drastic reduction in costs.  Simultaneously, we see huge advancements in solar, wind, waste-to-energy and other forms of biomass, as well as hydrokinetics and geothermal.  Let's look at this from a high level, though.  Right now, Americans are using an average of about 5 terawatts (5,000,000,000,000) of power, about 4% of which comes from wind -- a form of energy that has become so inexpensive that it's already competitive with coal -- the cheapest -- and dirtiest -- form of energy.  It's quite credible to me that we can build out wind, along with the development of low-cost means of energy storage and transmission, to represent a huge percentage of our national grid-mix. 

What are the biggest challenges associated with renewable energy?

The transition away from fossil fuels, even in ideal conditions, will take some time and some commitment.  But the conditions are anything but ideal.  In particular, the politics associated with all this is brutal.  We have senators whose campaign contributions come almost exclusively from the oil companies.  This creates an environment that is so monstrously corrupt, and, in particular, means that renewable energy is playing a game that is stacked against it.  You may be interested in a few quick examples:

  • We continue to subsidize the oil companies, the most profitable industry in the history of the known universe, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year.
  • Capital formation for oil and gas exploration is performed largely via a low-cost vehicle called "master limited partnerships," or "MLPs" which are illegal for solar and wind. 
  • The external costs of burning fossil fuels, e.g., lung disease, climate change, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, etc., are not captured in the costs of fossil fuels; in fact, they are ignored completely.  The complete costs of our cheap energy will be paid by our children.  This is deplorable.  One doesn't need to be an environmentalist or a humanitarian to see that. 

Can the renewable energy industry succeed without Government subsidies in the future?

Eventually.  But subsidies are intended to foster public/social good, and I would argue that this is most clearly the case with clean energy.  Instead, however, we're doing the precise opposite, subsidizing the very industry that is destroying us in a great variety of different ways. 

How are we doing with implementation and development of renewable energy so far?

We're certainly doing better in the last few years than we were for the many decades before that.  But it's disappointing to see so little progress being made.  I think it was Voltaire, one of my favorite people in history, who said, "Men argue.  Nature acts."  It seems that we've proven ourselves exceptionally able in arguing with one another. The time for that has passed.  Nature will act if we don't.

Who's going to get rich in the process?

Excellent question, as this is what lies at the core of the solution, if there is to be one.  Obviously, the people who have gotten obscenely rich in the past 100 years want a repeat performance here in the 21st Century.  So far, it's hard to bet against them.

Which segments of society will benefit the most --- the one percent --- or the rest of us?

I suppose it depends what you mean by "benefit."  Financially, it certainly appears that the rich will find a way to get richer as we make this transition.  But the question is more interesting than that.  We all breathe the same air.  Everyone's lungs are susceptible to the same cancers.  In that sense, we all benefit equally.  


Craig Shields

Starting in 1983, Craig built and managed a marketing agency with a staff as large as 210 professionals, generating demand for Fortune-sized and high-growth clients in IT, automotive, and industrial capital equipment.

Headline client relationships included IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Porsche Motor Cars, 3M, FedEx, Microsoft, General Motors, ITT, Litton, 3Com, Xerox, Penske, AT&T, National Semiconductor, Philips Electronics, Nortel Networks, Unisys, Pacific Telesis, Mitsubishi, Pioneer Electronics, Fujitsu, and Oracle.

B.A., Trinity College, Hartford, CT, 1977 (Physics and Philosophy)

M.A., Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1979 (Philosophy)

Craig's first book, "Renewable Energy - Facts and Fantasies" (published 2010), #1 best-selling energy book on Amazon, is a compilation of interviews with 25 subject matter experts on the technology, the economics, and the politics of clean energy.

His second book, "Is Renewable Really Doable?" (published 2012), #1 best-selling "environmental economics" book on Amazon) is a "deeper dive" into the issues that prevent our civilization from achieving a sustainable approach to energy.

His current book project, "Renewable Energy - Following the Money," was recently released.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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