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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Renewable Energy is Sort of Like the Internet

By Jeff Danner Posted May 18, 2014 at 9:55 pm

I am often inspired to write a column when I feel that a science or technology topic has been covered incorrectly or incompletely in other media outlets. Lately, stories on renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, are getting on my nerves. To understand why, first I need to complain about the internet for a bit.

As I discussed in a recent column, My First PC Weighed 25 Pounds, I have lived through the leading edge of the computer and internet revolution. I was in my high school’s first computer science class, was the first person I knew with a personal computer and a modem, and have been using the internet throughout its entire development. I tend to use the internet as an electronic newspaper and encyclopedia. I read the latest news stories, check out whether my long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates won their game, and use Google to look up information. So in general, I am a fan.

However, here is my complaint: even though the rate at which computers and networks can transmit and receive bits of data has increased by orders of magnitude, the time it takes for me to check the score of the Pirates game takes longer today than it did back in 1994. The problem is that no matter how much speed and capacity is added to the internet, the content of websites (including pictures, videos, links, ads, crawlers and the like) expands to fill it. For my fellow geeks, let’s call this the Ideal Gas Law of the Internet – website content will always expand to fill the available band width. Recently, in order to check whether the Pirates beat the Brewers, I first had to wait for the previous night’s highlight video and a picture of Andrew McCutcheon to load. While Mr. McCutcheon’s dreadlocks are an impressive sight, I really just wanted to know if they won the game. (Which they did, 4-1. Yay!)

With my internet critique in mind, let’s consider news stories about renewable energy in the United States. In order to preempt negative email responses, let me be clear that this column is a critique of news coverage and not in any way intended to impugn renewable energy. Recently I read an article – which downloaded rather slowly over the internet – about how new installations for solar power in the United States grew by 40% in 2013 over 2012, bringing total capacity to 1.6 Terawatt-hours. The story was interesting, contained correct information, had some pretty pictures, but was totally lacking in context.

I assume that, like me, many of you are interested in stories about renewable energy projects out of curiosity about the technology, as well as the hope that we are making progress towards replacing fossil fuels with alternative, carbon-free sources. It is this second point which is left unaddressed by nearly every story I encounter.

The important, if disappointing, part of the story of renewal energy sources is that, in an analogous fashion to internet websites chewing up the available bandwidth, energy consumption in the U.S. expands to fill any extra production. The graph below showing U.S. electricity production by generating technology tells several important stories. First of all, even after decades of development and investment, renewable energy sources provide only a tiny fraction of our energy as show by the thin green band. Secondly, as you can see from the ever growth width of the red band, the addition of solar and wind power plants is not even slowing the growth in the consumption of fossil fuels. Stated more simply: as we install more solar panels, we consume any extra power generated.

US Electricity Production

 

Before I discuss the attendant politics, let’s review why we should care that the renewable energy capacity we are installing is augmenting rather than supplanting fossil fuel capacity. As we continue burning coal, oil, and gas, our world keeps heating up, our climate keeps changing in ways that threaten our food supply, piles of toxic coal ash continue to accumulate along our rivers and lakes, and we are creating new earthquake zones by shattering underground rock through fracking.

So what should we do? A pure free-market approach would suggest that we do nothing. Over time, fossil fuels will continue to increase in price as reserves are depleted, while costs for renewable energy like solar and wind power will drop as technology continues to improve. Were it not for the problems I listed in the paragraph above, this free-market approach would work just fine.

However, if we wait for the free market to drive the technology change, it will be too late to stave off the worst of what climate change has in store for us. The answer is simple; we need to ensure that additions in renewable energy capacity are accompanied by the decommissioning of fossil-fuel power plants. The implementation will be the hard part.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email at commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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