The Coming Energy Revolution
ByNayyer Ali, MD
Last week, in what amounted to an anti-Obama temper tantrum, President Trump informed the rest of the world that the US would be exiting the Paris Accord on greenhouse gas emissions. This agreement, that was joined by every nation on Earth except for Syria and Nicaragua, was meant to lay down a commitment by the entire globe to reduce CO2 emissions that are warming the planet, and move us to a green energy future.
Trump, who has bought into the right-wing nonsense that climate change is some sort of hoax meant to destroy the American economy, pulled out of this treaty and the US is no longer bound by its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) by 2025 to 28% below the levels of 2005.
Trump has been no fan of clean energy, and one of his key campaign promises has been to revive coal mining in the US, which has been steadily shedding jobs for 40 years, but remains a key industry in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.
But Obama is going to get the last laugh on Trump’s move. Trump is acting as if we are still living in the world of 2005, when renewables like wind and solar were much more expensive than coal, and fracking of natural gas in the US had not started. But in 2009, Obama passed his stimulus program, which included a 90-billion-dollar investment in clean energy research and development and deployment. This was huge as the US had spent less than 10 billion dollars on this in all the prior years combined. The result was that solar and wind expanded dramatically under Obama, and more importantly, the cost of solar and wind power plummeted. These clean energy dollars also jumpstarted Tesla Motors and their snappy electric vehicles, and energy storage technologies, that will help overcome the problem of intermittency in clean energy (solar power doesn’t work at night, and wind turbines don’t spin when the winds are calm).
In the eight years under Obama, the cost of solar power plummeted 85%, and wind by 70%. Already, wind supplies 6% of US electricity, and solar is starting to climb fast. 25% of all US coal power plants have shut down or been slated to shut down in the last four years.
But how can we overcome the problem of intermittency? There are several solutions. First is to make the grid smart. When power production starts to drop, household appliances and commercial power users will automatically reduce their consumption as they will be linked together with the electric company. Second, power generation will be diversified across the entire US and linked with high-voltage transmission lines to move power around. So when the sun sets in the East Coast, solar panels in the west will still be generating. And while the winds may be calm in Kansas, they will be blowing hard in Texas. This will smooth out variation. Third, energy will be stored in large batteries that will allow the utilities to supply extra power when renewable generation slows. Fourth, and this would be the ultimate solution, solar power can be linked around the globe. Massive solar farms in Australia can provide power for the US when it is night in the Western Hemisphere, and vice versa, as the US and Latin America could send surplus solar power to Asia and Europe when it is night in the Eastern Hemisphere.
It really doesn’t take that much room now to generate massive electric power from solar sites. A square meter of solar paneling under direct sunlight will generate 100 watts of power. A square kilometer will do 100 megawatts. A thousand square kilometers yields 100 gigawatts, and the entire US electric demand is about 500 gigawatts at maximum use. That would be 5,000 square kilometers, or a giant square in the desert about 45 miles long on each side. Put two or three of those each in the American desert, the Sahara, the Gobi Desert in China, and the Outback of Australia and that could power the entire planet 24/7.
While Trump has abandoned Paris, the US is set to shrink its carbon emissions regardless. US emissions actually peaked around 2007 and have been declining ever since. Many Americans have already put solar on their roof in sunny states, and drive hybrid and electric cars. Electric cars are going to become available in massive numbers in the next few years, and with ranges over 200 miles, that will make them much more enticing to consumers. The cost of building electric cars is dropping rapidly, and they will likely become cheaper than gasoline cars by 2025 or maybe even a few years sooner. When that happens, consumers will start to switch over en masse. India has gone so far as to ban all gasoline car sales after 2030.
The switchover to clean energy is happening at much more rapid clip than anyone predicted. As we build more and more wind and solar and electric vehicles the cost will drop even more, making the economics even stronger. This will have not only environmental implications, but geopolitical ones too.
For almost 45 years the global economy has been very sensitive to the price of crude oil, which has been the lifeblood of transportation. This importance has given the oil producing nations, many of which are Muslim countries around the Persian Gulf and in North Africa, huge windfalls of dollars to spend on consumption. Unfortunately, these trillions of dollars that rolled in during the last forty years, were not spent wisely building truly modern societies with high levels of education, research, and business. Instead they created patronage states that kept the population happy with subsidized living. That gravy train is going to end in the next generation. Already the price of oil has collapsed from 100 dollars a barrel three years ago to 50 at present.
Over the next ten years, the demand for gasoline is going to peak and start dropping. When that happens the price of oil could collapse all the way down to 20 dollars or less, as producers fight to keep market share by undercutting each other. For the petrostates, they need to realize that the oil bounty is not permanent. They have a limited amount of time to diversify and truly develop their economies and get their populations to do real work, rather than fake government jobs meant to be a way to pass oil revenue down to the average person.