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.
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%.
As 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 as well. 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
Although the issue of public health is often argued qualitatively,
it is rarely quantified into dollars. 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.