The typical approach you’ll find when reading an article encouraging a transition to renewable resources tends to be some variation of “the planet is dying, we’re all going to kill each other, and the world is ending: the only solution is to go green!” Hyperbole aside, there is some merit to these arguments, but they’ve been so overused and sensationalized that many people simply tune out the entire discussion. With that in mind, this article examines the reasons for shifting to renewable energy in the United States from a completely different tact: that it is economically beneficial to do so.
Stable Energy Prices
Over the past 20 years, oil prices have been anything but stable, with coal and natural gas being only slightly less volatile. As the lifeblood of the global economy, these fluctuations negatively impact every corner of the world. Stability is one of the key factors necessary for economic growth, and it certainly seems like we have built on a shaky foundation.
Standing in stark contrast to the rising and volatile price of oil are the stable and consistently decreasing costs of renewable energy sources. For example, the average cost of installing solar panels decreased by more than 70% between 2010 and 2017; during the period from 2009 to 2016 the cost of harnessing wind power decreased by 66%.
Even though the cost of harnessing renewable energy resources has consistently decreased, the number of jobs created by the industry has steadily risen. In 2016, the wind and solar industries combined directly employed more than 360,000 full time equivalent jobs in the United States, with the hydroelectric industry (66,000) and geothermal industry (5,800) contributing more. To contrast that to other, established energy sources, the entire coal industry provides only 160,000 jobs across the US.
A 2015 report from NextGen Climate America estimated that investment in renewable energy would add a million jobs to the US economy by 2030, with that doubling to two million jobs by 2050. This would cause an increase in GDP of $290 billion and improve household income across the board, while providing environmental benefits of decreasing carbon emissions to 80% lower than 1990 levels.
The construction industry would be one of the largest recipients of this boon, with NextGen Climate America estimating an increase of 1.2 million more jobs by 2050 as infrastructure is replaced across the board; a similar trend would be seen in the manufacturing and automotive industries. These estimates are not fanciful fiction; the solar industry, for example, has rapidly outpaced the rest of the American economy, growing 12 times faster than the rest of the economy in 2015 alone and at times increasing to as much as 20 times faster.
Improved Public Health
Although the issue of public health is often argued qualitatively, it is rarely quantified into dollars and cents. A 2011 Harvard University study demonstrated that the life cycle costs and public health effects of coal alone were $74.6 billion per year; when that is factored into the price of coal-sourced electricity it equals out to 4.36 cents per kilowatt of energy produced. That’s approximately one-third of the electricity rate for the average US home.
Renewable energy also impacts water sources drastically less than current energy production sources.
Electric power generation is responsible for nearly 40 percent of freshwater withdrawals in the United States – the tune of 100 billion gallons per day in 2008. The recent California drought, as well as increasing global water shortages, illustrates how important conserving this essential resource is. In addition to consuming a significant amount of water, current methods of energy production contribute substantial amounts of various types of pollution to water sources. This not only directly impacts human health, it does so indirectly by negatively influencing local aquatic ecosystems; these effects are felt at every level of the food chain. One example of pollution that is rarely discussed is thermal pollution; since the major reason for water in energy production is to cool generating equipment, the water released back into the environment is significantly hotter – up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. This is a drastic change for aquatic life, particularly during times of the year
when heat tolerance is at its highest. This temperature difference can create dead zones of water-based microbial life, which are the building blocks for any healthy ecosystem.
The primary argument against transitioning to renewable energy sources often revolves around its economic costs; opponents of clean energy often contend that it would not only not be beneficial, it would actually be harmful to the US economy. With that argument in mind, it is interesting to note that some of the largest and most profitable companies in America are heavily investing in renewable energy – and not just for altruistic reasons. Ash
Sharma, a solar energy analyst at IHS Technology, states ““For these big corporations, electricity is one of their biggest costs. Locking that in at a low price is really critical for them.” Apple has publicly declared a goal of powering 100% of its operations from clean energy. Amazon recently began building a 253-megawatt wind farm in Texas. Google is perhaps the most prolific user of clean energy, having not only invested in the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, but also partnering with SunPower to provide solar panels to homeowners. When Apple, Amazon, and Google are all heavily investing in an industry, the argument that it isn’t economically beneficial to do so quickly falls apart.
The price of solar energy, for example, has been falling so rapidly that in many instances it is now cheaper than it costs to produce the same amount of energy from coal and gas. At an energy auction in Abu Dhabi in September of 2016, a Chinese and Japanese consortium bid to build a solar farm that would produce energy at 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour; while coal-based power costs 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour.
Current methods of energy production are not sustainable, not environmentally friendly, and as this article has shown, are not in our best economic interests. There are much better, cheaper, and healthier alternatives to be found in the world of renewable energy, and these benefits will only increase the more we invest in them.