Renewed confidence

(Feature image by pixelchecker)

There are plenty of misunderstandings about renewable energy and its promise, the facts surrounding the various technologies, and their comparison to traditional energy sources. Only some of it stems from a general lack of understanding, or spread of misinformation, about them, and some is at least in part due to the fact that energy supply and generation are intimately tied to economics, jobs, and markets.

One of the major talking points we keep hearing is that wind, solar, and hydro, will never be enough to supply energy to the world, or even the US.

It’s a claim we should ask for substantiation on.

In 2016, nearly 90% of added capacity in the entirety of the European Union, comprising 28 states and over 510 million people, consisted of renewables (solar, wind, hydro, and biomass). 

Coal mine, photo by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

In the US, renewables made for 43% of new capacity in 2016 – it’s something we’re way and far behind most of the rest of the developed world in. 
Looking beyond added capacity, and to total existing production capacity, the US ranks number 20 in the world for solar production, the most prevalent renewable production method – Germany is at the top of the list, with 400MW of production capacity per million people. The US’s solar production capacity is a paltry 25 MW/million.

Here is a very detailed report with figures for various renewable energy categories broken down by country. It’s important data to have on hand and understand.

Now, it’s hard to see why solar energy projects would be any cheaper to construct in Germany than they are in the US. On the contrary, one would imagine with the space restrictions a country like Germany is subject to (with 85 million people in an area half the size of Texas), that the costs for production capacity would be substantially lower here, just factoring in the cost of real estate alone. So why are we so far behind?

The answer lies, as it often does, in the money.
Looking at solar power production relative to GDP, Bulgaria leads the way with nearly 18MW per $1 billion of GDP. Germany is at #3 of the list, with a total of about 9MW of production capacity per $1 billion of GDP.
The US we find at position 26 of the list, with 0.5MW per $1B GDP (, data from EPIA, IWS, IMF).

The numbers are simple enough: we could be investing more in renewables.

Policy is the way to fix this. Whether you believe that climate change is a real thing or not (hint: it is), it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that dumping toxic coal ash into our rivers, injecting a high-pressure mix of various substances into the ground to force out natural gas (much of which ends up in the water table, by the way), and simply accepting the deaths of millions of people from illnesses caused by pollution is probably not the brightest idea.

The fossil fuel lobbies are deep-pocketed and very influential. The clearest path forward seems to be to bring people into elected office that put the well-being of their constituents before the interests that finance their campaigns. 

So, the next time someone tells you that the coal mining jobs we keep hearing about are so utterly critical to this country, remind them that the coal industry employs fewer people (~77,000) than Arby’s (about 80,000). Also remind them that the solar industry alone employs over 260,000 people, more than three times the jobs coal provides, and that the solar energy industry is growing 17 times faster than the US economy as a whole.
And that’s not counting wind, hydro, and the other possible alternatives.

This, by the way, is the good news – the economic success of renewable energy is likely to make it more difficult to turn back the clock to the archaic means of energy production by burning stuff. That should give us confidence, as there’s only little effective arguing anyone can do against a number. Clean energy provides over 34,000 jobs right here in North Carolina (31% growth year-over-year), with nearly 1000 companies in the sector with a total revenue of $6.4B. 

The question is not whether we can afford to invest more heavily into renewable energy, it is whether we can afford not to – and that is true from an environmental as well as an economic perspective, worldwide, nationwide, and here in North Carolina. From an environmental perspective, it’s pretty clear that we don’t have much time.

Join us in demanding economic and environmental policy that actually makes sense. With the support of members, we can affect legislative progress on this and many other issues.