We are now at what appears to be the dawn of an energy transition. It will take a couple of generations to accomplish but it will happen. The transition is from an energy economy based on burning fossil fuels to clean sustainable electric energy generation from wind turbines and solar. We will transition from a few large power plants to a much more diffuse collections of wind farms, solar farms, and even more dispersed home solar photovoltaic arrays, all connect to a robustly interconnected transcontinental grid.
The technology exists and is operating on a small scale now but to bring in the future much will need to be done to strengthen, expand, and interconnect our electrical infrastructure. There are several drivers for the technological revolution. Fossil fuels are in limited supply, global warming is real, and large power plants are ideal targets for terrorism, an unfortunate reality in today’s world.
Fossil fuels are in limited supply so we continue to form alliances with despotic regimes and fight wars for access to oil. Even with the advent of new drilling technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, we still need to import well over half of the crude oil we use in this country. Coal may be abundant here but it’s extraction and utilization has many negative consequences. The new energy economy can end this vicious entanglement, and produce energy in ways that are much, much cleaner.
Global warming is real and a real threat to all life on the planet. Not only is it getting hotter, but it is getting hotter faster. Although the global climate has changes over geologic time, we are driving changes to the climate at rates that in the past have lead to severe die-offs. Although we may survive without reversing global warming, it will be in a world with drastically reduced biological diversity. Producing our energy cleanly and renewably is the only realistic approach to reversing the dangers inherent in global warming.
Global economic inequity breeds despair, anger and, rightly or wrongly, attempts at retribution against the “haves” by the “have-nots.” Terrorism is a reality around the world, not just the near east and north Africa, but everywhere. An attack on a single large power plant could not only darken the the night, but threaten the well being and lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a single stroke. Widely distributed energy resources such as wind and solar coupled with a robust and redundant grid make that kind of threat essentially nonexistent.
The development of the new energy economy will not come with out costs, but the benefits of a sustainable energy future , and more stable ecological and political climate will far out way those costs. The process of developing, constructing, and maintaining the new energy infrastructure will provide jobs. The future energy economy will require a degree of technical expertise that generates well paying jobs the continue into the future and can’t be exported.
The upward arc of civilization is marked by our level of cooperation. The more we work together and the more of us that work together the more likely will be a bright, clean, and stable future.