Imagine an America where clean energy jobs were replacing the old economy jobs we’re losing. Imagine a country where research, grants and tax incentives helped new green industries get up on their feet and steered existing employers toward more promising futures. Imagine a country that reduced its greenhouse emissions at a rate that would cut them in half in less than a decade.
Imagine what’s actually happening inside the United States, right now.
Amid terrible economic news and all the handwringing over our political system’s impotence in the face of real problems (read my column from last week, for an example) something really remarkable is happening: Our energy sector is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Exhibit #1: The wonks at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported last week that U.S. energy production dropped by nearly 5 percent. Measured as British Thermal Units, we’re talking about a fall from 99.2 quadrillion in 2008 to 94.6 quadrillion in 2009. That’s a lot of -illions.
Drops in energy use and increases in efficiency tend to be among the benefits of a recession. And the Great Recession, which started in late 2007, naturally led to big cuts in the amount of coal and oil being burned; that shuttered factory in your town’s industry park is bound to be using less power.
“Energy use tends to follow the level of economic activity, and that level declined last year,” Lawrence Livermore energy systems analysis A.J. Simon noted. “At the same time, higher efficiency appliances and vehicles reduced energy use even further. As a result, people and businesses are using less energy in general.”
Simon had a hand in putting together the niftiest flow chart ever for Lawrence Livermore. It breaks down the form of all energy used by Americans (e.g. coal, petroleum, nuclear, solar) and also shows which sector uses what portion of each form (e.g. homes, industry, transportation).
In its color-coded glory, the flow chart rivals a map to the New York City subway system, and it tracks its own significant journey: While renewable energy sources still comprise a tiny fraction of the overall energy flow, they’re enormous compared to 2008. Wind power, for example grew from .51 quadrillion BTUs to .7 quadrillion BTUs — a jump of nearly 40 percent.
In other words, while energy produced by fossil fuels declined during the recession, energy produced by renewable sources was booming.
Some of this may be due to government help, but here’s where the good news gets even better. Most of the energy saving and clean energy benefits of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package aren’t likely to be reflected in the Lawrence Livermore numbers. So it’s a pretty good bet that the shift toward renewables and efficiency is moving even faster this year.
Which brings us to Exhibit #2: Vice President Biden trumpeted a very rosy White House report on the stimulus package last week. The report, Transforming the American Economy through Innovation, boasts: “Across areas that have great significance for America’s future, the Recovery Act is laying the foundation for a new, more robust American economy.”
As self-congratulatory as the report is, it’s difficult to argue with real-world examples. Nearly 30 new vehicle battery plants are slated to open within two years, giving the U.S. the capacity to “support 500,000 plug-in and hybrid vehicles.”
Tax credits and loan guarantees are giving a boost to solar plant expansions from Perryburg, Ohio, to Fremont Calif. Just last week — after the White House report was issued — federal regulators moved closer to approving the world’s largest solar power plant to be built on the edge of the Mojave Desert.
The story is very similar for wind power, which is experiencing an unprecedented boom, both on land and offshore.
The point isn’t that all of a sudden everything’s hunky-dory. The economy is still in the toilet, the average American is still responsible for an enormous volume of greenhouse gases, and the science points ever more urgently toward the need for us to do something fast about climate change. And the Energy Department's Short Term Energy Outlook projects carbon dioxide emissions to rise by 3.4 percent this year because of the economic recovery, after dropping 7 percent in 2009. Only placing a price on greenhouse emissions, either with taxes or carbon credit trading, will secure the big shift by weakening the chokehold that fossil fuels have on our future, and that idea died a last month in the U.S. Senate.
But the shift to a clean-energy economy — which may feel slow but is moving fairly rapidly when compared to similar shifts in the past — should give us some hope that profound change is possible. It’s a counter story to those who say we shouldn’t bother tackling climate change because transforming our energy sector is nothing but the fantasy of a few granola-nibbling hippies.
The good news is the carrot that we should all keep in front of our noses even as the stick — the threat of a future catastrophically altered by climate change — gets most of the attention.