Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Third Way. Author credit goes to Stephan Dolezalek and Josh Freed.
Whether it’s major Capitol Hill media Web sites or Congressional hearings, many in Washington seem consumed these days by the question of whether the clean technology sector is viable. The real issue is not whether solar, wind, biofuels or other cleantech will succeed. They will not only succeed; globally, these new technologies will come to dominate the power sector on a long-term basis. The issue is whether the U.S. will lead or follow and whether the jobs and economic growth represented by these industries will be here or elsewhere.
Renewables Dominate New Generation
Renewables already represent roughly half of the annual new additions to power generation globally. The difference between seeing renewables as a tiny percentage of current total electricity production and realizing that these newer, clean technologies already represent 50% of everything being added to the grid is huge. Technologies that reach more than half of net new deployments do not decline, they tend to accelerate. So for the “some of everything, including a little bit of renewables” crowd, the reality is that the simple passage of time will lead to “some of everything and a lot of renewables.”
The real issue for the United States is whether the job growth represented by the cleantech industries will occur here or elsewhere. The prospects do not look good for us. We are on a path to once again export the jobs and import the product (whether solar panels or wind turbines). That path is not economically sound. Sadly, however, as far as much of Washington is concerned, the cleantech boom has gone bust in the United States. Politically, we have chosen to stick with the old, just as the rest of the world embraces the new.
Solar and Wind Represent a Paradigm Shift in Generating Power
At least as far as energy generation is concerned, cleantech involves a paradigm shift. In such paradigm shifts, it is exceedingly difficult for leading incumbents in the old way to recognize the benefits of, never mind the inevitability of, the new way. This is particularly true when the shift involves infrastructure, such as moving from horses to automobiles, carriages to railways, or wire line to wireless phones.
Wind and solar power are not so much “improvements” in how we have historically made electricity as much as they are a completely different means of doing so. For more than 100 years, we have made energy by burning something – wood, coal, gas – often to make steam, which in turn powered a turbine that makes electricity. Similarly, we have used wood and later gasoline to drive engines for industry and for transport. In that paradigm, shale gas and tar sands are incremental improvements over how we today extract and use fossil fuels. As a result, they are also much easier for the incumbent industry to embrace.
As with Wireless, Emerging Economies Adopting Cleantech More Quickly
The good news for renewable energy technologies, as was the case for wireless, is that there are large parts of the world who have not previously committed themselves to either the old or the new. This was equally true for much of Asia, India and Africa when it came to choosing their telephony technology. When faced with a decision between stringing wires and putting up cell towers, the decision could be made purely on the merits and economies of the two technologies. In each case, the new won over the old.
Today, that same decision is being replayed all over the world. The difference is that while there were many places that lacked wire line communication, fossil fuels already exist as an incumbent virtually everywhere. Nonetheless, China, India, and many other emerging economies are now taking over cleantech leadership from the United States and Europe. More interestingly, the heartland of oil extraction – the Middle East – is also strongly accelerating its adoption of solar (witness the recent announcement by the Saudi government to obtain more than a third of its peak-load power supply, or about 41 gigawatts, from the sun within two decades at an estimated cost well over $100 billion.)
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