Renewable Energy: What’s True, What’s False

A short, handy new guide from the Earth Institute cuts through the noise about renewable energy to lay out the facts about this politically charged subject. In Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century, Columbia Business School professor and energy entrepreneur Bruce Usher takes readers briskly through the essentials: how various forms of renewable energy work, how much they cost, where they stand in relation to still-dominant fossil fuels, and where they are likely to go.

Usher largely eschews morality-tinged arguments about the imperative for “green” power, concentrating instead on economics and technology. He spices it up with weird historical surprises. (The ancient Chinese tried, and failed, to build natural-gas pipelines from sections of bamboo. The first English to burn coal were not the rich, but the poor, who couldn’t afford wood from fast-disappearing forests. In 1900, one-third of U.S. vehicles were electric; only after internal-combustion engines saw big improvements did gasoline take over.) He also gets into the minds of energy consumers, explaining terms such as “range anxiety”–the greatly exaggerated sense that an electric car may run out of juice before the driver can recharge it.

Published by Columbia University Press, the book is the first in a series of sustainability primers with the Earth Institute imprint. Future planned ones will take on food and farming; mining; tropical forests; and conflict resolution.

We spoke with Usher about where renewable energy is now, and what to expect in coming years.

Your book approaches energy mainly in economic and technological terms. How fast is renewable energy growing, and why? Should people stop arguing for it mainly on moral “save-the-planet” grounds?
Renewable energy is growing faster than any other form of power, more than 8 percent annually for the past 6 years. This is happening in nearly every country, and for the same reason: renewables are increasingly cost competitive. Which is not to say that economics is the only reason for supporting renewables. Wind and solar power play a critical role in the fight against climate change, which I believe is a moral imperative for anyone who cares about future generations. But the moral argument isn’t enough, because electricity is a commodity, meaning that most consumers cannot readily determine where their electricity is coming from. We all know a plastic bag when we see one, and on moral grounds some people choose reusable ones. Renewables and fossil fuels produce the same electrons. So like any commodity, consumers are going to choose primarily on the basis of price.

You dig into what you call the “virtuous cycle” of growth in certain energy sectors. Is that not a moralistic theory?
No, a virtuous cycle in business occurs when growth in demand for a product results in economies of scale that lower manufacturing costs, further increasing demand for the product. For example, in solar power it means that the lower the cost of manufacturing solar panels, the greater the demand, and the greater the demand the greater the manufacturing efficiencies and the lower the cost, which further increases demand, and so on, in a feedback loop. That’s a virtuous cycle.

Which forms of renewable energy are growing fastest? Which are lagging and why?
By far the strongest growth is in wind and solar. Globally in 2017, wind grew 10 percent and solar grew by 32 percent This continued many years of double-digit growth. They are reliable, inexpensive, and inexhaustible. Tidal and wave power have tremendous potential but are yet to be proven at scale. The oceans contain enormous energy that can theoretically be harnessed. However, doing so has turned out to be costly.

You book largely writes off hydropower and nuclear.
In theory, nuclear could provide cheap and emissions-free power, but today’s power plants cost a multiple of wind and solar, despite efforts to develop better plants. And that’s not taking into account the unpopularity of siting nuclear plants, or the challenges of disposing of nuclear waste. Hydropower, on the other hand, is currently the largest single source of renewable energy, and is often cost competitive. But the primary problem there is that most of the world’s best rivers already have dams, leaving few growth opportunities. Last year, hydropower grew by less than 2 percent. I believe hydropower will remain an important component of the energy mix, but it’s unlikely to significantly replace fossil fuels, due to the limits on further development.

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