We are in the midst of a new Industrial Revolution, one that will replace coal, oil, natural gas, and be powered by electricity from the sun and wind. It will bring great swings of fortune, and at least cleaner air. Will America retain its greatness by leading it?
The first Industrial Revolution was initially powered by water, then by coal, the first of the “fossil fuels.” It brought many innovations throughout industry, and fortunes and great changes were made throughout society, some good some bad. Coal’s worst effect was air pollution — smoke, smog, mercury in acid rain, and carbon dioxide.
After coal, in the 1900s, oil became the low-cost, convenient fuel. The horse and buggy was replaced by gasoline-powered vehicles. Paved roads and sprawling cities have become the norm. Electricity, mostly powered by fossil-fueled power stations, spread throughout America in the 1930s. Each of these innovations created winners and losers in the economy.
Now, in the 2010s, we are on the cusp of powering almost our entire economy by clean renewable sources of energy, including wind and solar, with the possibility of battery storage of power during calms and at night.
Wind turbines, solar photovoltaic (panels and lithium ion batteries were all invented in America. However, because other countries have provided attractive subsidies for further development, they are now taking the lead. China, Germany and Japan, for instance, now manufacture more solar panels than the United States. Denmark, China, Germany and India exceed the U.S. in production of wind turbines.
We subsidize certain changes to encourage the early development of new technologies, but strangely, we continue to subsidize coal, oil and gas with something called a “depletion allowance.”
Such subsidies still amount to about $20 billion annually. Since 1918 total U.S. fossil fuel subsidies have amounted to $550 billion. The International Monetary Fund notes that if climate and environmental costs were included, our fossil fuel subsidies would amount to nearly $5 trillion. Subsidies for nuclear have also been significant. Subsidies for solar and wind are tiny by comparison ($6 billion since 1994).
However, by putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, rising every year until the playing field is leveled, clean energy could soon have the lowest cost. Money raised would be paid to people as a dividend in order to offset increased costs of items requiring fossil fuel inputs and to encourage industrial innovation.
Such a plan, called “Carbon Fee and Dividend” has been gaining traction in Congress, and was recently given a boost by publication of the Republican Climate Leadership Council’s “Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends.”
Fortunately, because of market forces outside government’s control, the cost of solar keeps dropping, from $77 per watt installed in 1977 to less than 5 cents per watt today, and it’s still dropping. Generating electrical power from solar is already cheaper than making electricity from natural gas.
The cost of batteries for electric vehicles is also dropping. It won’t be long before you too can afford one, and soon after, electronic vehicles of all sizes and shapes will be lower in cost than those with internal combustion engines.
This is an Industrial Revolution in the making. The question is: Do we want to keep America great by maintaining our innovative edge in the science and engineering that brings these inventions into existence? Or are we going to construct oil pipelines, drill for more oil and gas, and struggle to revive the coal industry instead?
Will we fall behind by buying electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines from other countries? Or even worse, will we impose obstructionist policies to hinder deployment of solar and discourage adoption of electric vehicles?
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, deserves praise for her cap and dividend proposal — the 2009 CLEAR Act — that would have set carbon pricing in motion. We sorely need her leadership on this issue now. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, deserves praise for alerting us to the dangers of climate change. Reps. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, and Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, would benefit by joining the discussion in the House Climate Solutions Caucus.
Fortunately, the economics are favorable. The shift from fossil fuels to clean energy will bring jobs, raise GDP and assure cleaner air and water for us all. That would make America really great.
Peter Garrett, Ph.D., is state coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby. He lives in Winslow.