Credit: American Public Power Association on Unsplash
The history of human progress is a history of energy innovation. Initially, and for a long time, we harnessed animals and firewood which, though somewhat limited, provided vastly more energy output than any individual person could. Then we figured out how to use fossil fuels, which sparked the industrial revolution and just about everything since. Energy, broadly defined, is the capacity to do work. So, when energy use goes up, so do incomes. This held true until the early 1970s. Ryan Avent explains why:Increased energy use is essential to progress. Yet generally we do not speak in such terms today, for very good reasons. Since the 1960s we have learned how damaging fossil-fuel use can be. Extraction causes significant environmental damage. Burning fossil fuels creates harmful pollutants. Reliance on fossil fuels complicates geopolitics and is often a source of economic vulnerability. Perhaps most important, energy generated by burning fossil fuels changes the composition of the atmosphere and thus the climate. Anthropogenic climate change threatens to introduce new constraints on our ability to raise our living standards, and could potentially cause them to fall, perhaps by a lot.Thanks to these costs (both dollar costs and ecological costs), we’ve spent the past 50 years or so focusing on increasing energy efficiency—how can we use less costly fuel to generate the same level of output? This is the framework that looms over us when we talk about renewable energy—how can we use zero-carbon sources to generate the same level of output? This is a noble goal, but we can and should aim higher than the same level of output.
The best thing about renewable energy is right there in its name: it’s renewable. You don’t have to dig it up and burn it, you don’t have to refine it, you don’t have to pump it into a gas tank. Build the infrastructure and it generates energy in perpetuity. Build enough infrastructure and at some point you generate so much electricity that it becomes “to cheap to meter.”
That much energy creates an abundance of opportunity (read Matt Yglesias for a good run down of everything from solving water scarcity to supersonic jet travel to scrubbing all the carbon out of the air). Most importantly, renewables remove the constraints and scarcity imposed by fossil fuel use. It allows to grow our energy use as rapidly as we want, and when energy use goes up income follows. The fact that renewables are the energy source most associated with “constraint” is a PR disaster and branding malpractice. They should find a new agency.
Credit: Carlo Ratti Associati
Solarpunk nerds rejoice: vertical farming is going mainstream.
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