The Coming Clean Energy Future

WindTurbines

With a science-hating administration in power and bent on wrecking the fragile international accord on climate change, it seems our civilization is doomed to suffer the full weight of its folly. I’ve been very pessimistic about the future since the election for that reason.

But lately, I’m feeling some unfamiliar glimmers of optimism. Based on stories I’ve been reading, we may have already reached a point where fossil fuels are doomed and renewables are destined to replace them, purely on the basis of economics. Here’s an example from Oklahoma, of all places:

A new wind farm that could become the largest in the U.S. will be taking shape across the blustery plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle over the next three years, helping to wean four Southern states off of electricity produced with climate-polluting coal.

American Electric Power (AEP) and wind developer Invenergy plan to complete a $4.5 billion wind farm called the Wind Catcher Energy Connection by 2020, along with a 350-mile electric power line. The project, announced this week, will supply Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas with 9 million megawatt hours of wind power, enough electricity for about 800,000 homes.

But even before it’s finished, its status as the largest in the U.S. is facing a challenge:

Wind Catcher’s claim to fame as the largest single wind farm in the U.S. comes with an asterisk, however.

Another project of similar size is being developed in Iowa, but it will be composed of multiple separate wind farms. A 3,000-megawatt wind project on two sites is being proposed in Wyoming, and its developers call it the biggest in the world.

Until now, the economies of these midwestern states have been based on coal and oil. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them are deep-red conservative. More than a source of energy, fossil fuels have become part of their ideology. Decades of drilling and mining have instilled in them the belief that the planet is here for us to exploit and that economic prosperity versus environmental conservation is a zero-sum game. And as the actual number of jobs declines, the people in these extractive states have clung more fiercely to the idea of those jobs, as the symbol of an entire vanished way of life which they think they can bring back.

As solar and wind power become a bigger part of their economies, I wonder what effect it may have on their politics. As I’ve written, renewable energy is inherently democratic in a way that fossil fuels aren’t. When these states see that prosperity can come together with conservation, they may come to embrace the future rather than cling to the past.

Meanwhile, as renewables are rising, fossil fuels are falling. This story from earlier in the summer, “Digging the Graveyard of Oil’s Past“, chronicles the massive effort to wind down the industries of yesterday:

The British North Sea was once a crucial source of oil for the world. At its peak in 1999, it produced about 2.9 million barrels of oil a day, more than Kuwait or Iraq at the time.

Since then, production has generally been in a long slide as oil fields discovered decades ago are exhausted and high costs discourage new exploration. Its diminishing fortunes have been cemented by the rise of renewables and the push for cleaner alternatives to oil.

The article’s focus is a behemoth, 400,000-ton ship called the Pioneering Spirit, 12,000 1,200 feet long with a crew of 450. It was built to construct offshore oil platforms, but it’s found a new calling in dismantling them:

After 40 years of production, the field is nearly pumped out. And a group of four platforms in the field — giant rigs that stand around 1,000 feet tall and weigh a combined million tons — are gradually being shut down.

This spring, the Pioneering Spirit transported one platform to its final resting place, a shipyard in Hartlepool in northeast England where it is being dismantled and sold for scrap.

The old, decommissioned rigs are so huge that whole new industries have arisen to dismantle and scrap them. (It reminds me of the ocean-bottom ecosystems that spring up around whale falls.) And notice what else the scavenging companies are breaking up:

Once Brent Delta reached the port in Hartlepool, the platform became the property of Able UK.

…In recent years, Able has dismantled ships for the United States Navy, as well as the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau. He recently began buying idled coal-fired power plants, breaking them up for scrap and redeveloping their sites.

Whether it’s giant wind farms or giant oil rigs, these are utility-scale projects that the average person will never lay eyes on. But the renewable-energy economy is soon going to debut in full view of the masses, in the form of the Tesla Model 3 which was unveiled this summer.

With the ability to drive over 300 miles on a full charge, the Model 3 has a longer range than any previous electric car, and it’s already getting rave reviews. At $35,000 to $44,000, it isn’t cheap, but it’s also not a super-luxury car like Tesla’s Model S, which sells for over $100,000. It’s comparable to, and is likely to compete with, existing luxury sedans like the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C Class. And the response has been overwhelming right out of the gate:

You don’t often see people lining up outside dealerships simply to place a $1,000 deposit on a car they haven’t even seen—something that happened at many Tesla stores this week. By the time Musk pulled the sheet off the Model 3 at the sprawling Space X campus here in Hawthorne, California, 115,000 customers had put their money down.

And as with the other trends, this one is only going to accelerate as the technology improves:

One of the biggest reasons EVs cost so much (compared to gas-powered cars) is the battery… But those costs are falling, fast. Between 2010 and 2015, the average cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) dropped 65 percent, from $1,000 to $350, according to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “By 2022,” the report says, “the unsubsidized total cost of ownership of [battery electric vehicles] will fall below that of an internal combustion engine vehicle.”

Granted, coal, oil and gas still provide most of the world’s energy. But it’s easy to forget how quickly change can happen. If you’re reading this, you’re probably old enough to remember a time when smartphones were nonexistent, and now they’re ubiquitous. The energy industry is in the throes of another such technological turnover. Just as fossil fuels once replaced wood and steam, now they’re being replaced in turn. And the change is being driven purely by economics, so it doesn’t matter much which party is in power.

Whether this exponential growth will come quickly enough to save us, I wouldn’t want to guess. I still think it’s likely we’ll have to do some large-scale geoengineering to suck carbon back out of the air and oceans. But the bridge to the future is visible, on a way I wouldn’t have thought possible on election night. The new world is already here, hidden beneath the old one like a bud under the snow waiting to unfurl, and not even the bitterest winter lasts forever.

Image credit: Kim Hansen with retouching by Richard Bartz, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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