Faced with global and local catastrophe in the form of widespread climate change, the coming century will be defined, of necessity, by a transition away from a fossil-fuel based economy. The consequences of maintaining the status quo are too dire to be ignored. Weathering the climate crisis and building a sustainable future will require a commitment to change on every level of our society. In this and future posts, I’ll be discussing the future of our energy infrastructure.
For more than a century, the expansion of the American economy has been powered by fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are a convenient energy source: they are plentiful, transportable, and have high energy densities. Almost every modern amenity, from cars and airplanes to fertilizers and plastics, is derived in some way from fossil fuels. But between climate change, environmental destruction, and the dangers of increasingly drastic methods of oil and gas extraction, our reliance on fossil fuels has to end. The costs have begun to outweigh the benefits. Whether or not peak oil has been passed, continuing our unfettered burning of fossil fuels will lead to disastrous and permanent changes in the planet’s climate.
Renewable energy (notably solar photovoltaics) is gaining momentum as an alternative to fossil fuels. Though the benefits of switching to sustainable energy sources are numerous, one important aspect is rarely explored on in detail: the switch to renewables allows for a transition not just in the type of energy we consume, but in the very way we produce energy. For the first time in centuries, we are gaining the means to meet our energy needs locally.
In contrast to many renewables, fossil fuels are location-dependent. Crude oil, for example, is produced in one area, refined in another, and burned elsewhere for energy (incidentally, about half of the United States’ domestic oil production is exported). All this requires a substantial built infrastructure that is only capable of sustaining itself as long as oil production is increasing. When local oil wells run dry, it becomes necessary to build extravagant transportation pipelines to move crude from producing wells to refineries. Thus, projects like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, designed to bring oil from Canada’s booming tar sands to the refineries and ports of the Texas Gulf coast.
So far the fledgling renewable energy infrastructure looks similar to the fossil fuel infrastructure: large-scale solar plants and biofuel refineries. However, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy does not demand the buildup of such massive infrastructure. In fact, it lends itself to a new type of wide-scale delocalized energy production. Take the successes of rooftop photovoltaic arrays, which can produce electricity for household consumption at substantially lower costs than conventional utilities. As the technology is rapidly progressing, the potential of solar and other renewables will only continue to increase.
In the coming posts I will examine current trends in energy technology and their implications for a delocalized energy future, a future in which nearly all energy, both electricity and fuel, is produced renewably and locally. By diversifying energy production, we can reduce the need for a wasteful and destructive energy infrastructure and set the United States, and the world, on the path to sustainability.