Wind power. Solar energy. Electric cars. For years, we’ve heard about the coming shift from a fossil-fuel-based economy to one that uses renewable and sustainable energy. But while green energy initiatives are great in theory, they’ve had a tough time making their way into the average community or driveway. Beyond the technical problems facing clean energy, the issue has become politically charged, with scandals such as Solyndra and the BP disaster in the Gulf dominating the news. Here are five problems slowing the conversion to green energy in the United States.
5. Lack of Incentive
Current initiatives to shift from an oil-based economy trace their roots back to the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s. While the past few presidential administrations have offered government incentives to spur green innovation, attempts have been piecemeal at best. We’ve seen nothing like the massive investments the U.S. has made in the past to jumpstart a sector, such as President Roosevelt’s New Deal to spur economic recovery or the construction of our interstate highway system that began under President Eisenhower. We see the data on anthropogenic climate change, but many people probably would not worry about the potential impact on the environment unless it affected their neighborhood.
Americans may not have real incentive to kick their oil dependency until they see European-style prices at the gas pump. In Germany and Turkey, for example, gasoline is priced at the U.S. equivalent of more than $11 a gallon. In fact, President Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, remarked in 2008, “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” for green initiatives to take hold. Yet no administration would want to be responsible for removing oil subsidies or raising fuel taxes.
4. Few Want Green Energy Production in Their Backyard
This phenomenon has plagued energy production since the start of the industrial age. Demand for energy increases with every generation, yet no one wants production facilities in their neighborhood. Every method of power generation has a trade-off, a sort of “devil’s bargain” in the deal. Coal-fired plants pollute. Wind farms threaten migratory birds and are seen as an eyesore to many. Disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have made people leery of nuclear power plants. We’ve constructed a society over the past century where energy production is centralized and hidden from view. This contradicts current green-energy concepts in which individuals produce energy locally for sale back to the grid. We’ve seen many court battles to block wind and solar farms. The litigiousness of a few may be well meaning but misplaced when it comes to the good of society as a whole. The discussion needs to center on what kind of society we want to have balanced against sustainable growth.
3. Corporations Seek to Maintain the Status Quo
Corporations are motivated by one incentive — to make money. As the price of oil goes up, big oil companies are finding it profitable to go after oil sources which where previously beyond reach, such as the tar sands in Canada and numerous “ground fracturing” or “fracking” operations in the U.S. Every dollar spent pursuing these oil sources is a dollar that is not invested in renewable energy. Some conspiracy theorists have even argued that these corporations are deliberately stalling efforts to develop renewable energy sources to protect their own profits. But even these gas and oil corporations know the writing is on the wall for fossil fuels, as they diversify by creating companies and divisions such as BP Solar and Shell Wind Energy. If tax incentives increase, the oil and gas corporations may become more interested in green energy innovation.
2. Cost is Often Prohibitive For Companies and Consumers
Energy consumers tend to vote with their wallets. Many green initiatives such as installing solar panels and electric cars may save money in the long run, but the initial cost is prohibitive for many people, even with available tax breaks. Even the construction of a new nuclear power plant (perhaps not seen as “green” but “alternative” energy) costs an estimated $20 billion. Many small startups simply can’t compete in the marketplace, and ultimately consumers flock to what’s cheaper and more convenient.
1. Green Technology is Still Very Primitive
Ultimately, the biggest challenge in implementing green energy may be the technological difficulties. Household energy is generated at a distant power plant and must be consumed immediately upon generation. This “production versus load” factor is a delicate balance that the grid must constantly maintain. This is problematic for solar and wind power which may not always be dependable during times of peak demand. Innovative ideas have been proposed to have solar, wind and even hydroelectric sources perform work in off-use hours and store potential energy via pneumatic pressurization or chemical batteries. Such systems would provide a dedicated source of power, but are currently only in limited use. Battery technology has its own issues. If the energy a battery-powered car draws comes from a coal-fired power plant, for example, the CO2 footprint is only being passed down the line. Concepts of rapid charging also need to be addressed. An Israeli company has experimented with one innovative solution, having drivers simply “swap” a dead battery for a charged one at a filling station, much like picking up a new propane tank for a barbeque grill. But if the batteries weigh more than 10 pounds, will everyone be able to perform the swap? Or will old-style service-station attendants be required, thus adding to the cost? Then there’s the issue of disposing of all those heavy-metal-filled batteries when electric cars start aging. Clearly, electrics and hybrids are great for single-car commuters, but only part of the solution. Much of the energy consumed on our highways and railroads goes toward moving cargo, and that’s not possible currently with anything but fossil fuels. Hydrogen power may provide a solution in this area, but also has its own safety and storage dilemmas. More exotic proposals for a smart grid utilizing thorium fission or even nuclear-fusion plants are out there, but proposals such as these seem to always be a few years away from reality.
In the end the transition to new energy-generating technologies may not come from government incentives, but happen through a more gradual cultural shift. For example, economist Daniel Yergin cites that oil demand peaked in the U.S. and has been in decline since 2007, in part because of the economic slowdown, but also because energy efficiency is now becoming standard in appliances and other products. As consumers demand more energy-efficient products, there may be a cross-cultural shift across the political divide toward sustainability and stewardship. The answer for the future of energy is not a simple one. Most likely, fossil fuels will be gradually phased out in favor of a variety of other energy sources, all contributing to meet the demands of a growing population.