Do you want cheaper energy? Maybe you need to go clean. Google “fossil fuels aren’t cheap” (with quotations) and you get something like 300+ results.  Why is that? Lots of fossil fuel folks say we need to keep them around because they’re so cheap.  Who’s right? Well, consider this.

  1. Externalities. Switching from fossil fuel energy to renewables could save society something like $4.2 trillion a year in health and environmental costs caused by fossil fuels. These are costs that are paid for by individuals, not the fossil fuel industries. Therefore, they’re called “externalities” because the fossil fuel companies externalize these costs (on to society) while internalizing the profit.
  2. Subsidies. When you count up all the subsidies provided to the fossil fuel industry, it adds up to about $5.3 trillion a year.
  3. Direct Costs. Then we can get into the direct cost of climate change, into the billions of dollars per year from storms, flooding, heat waves, etc. Just in 2017 this number is going to reach something like $300 billion. This is not even counting the cost in human lives. Climate change is caused primarily by fossil fuels.
  4. Death: Air pollution from burning of fossil fuels causes millions of unnecessary deaths per year. There is no monetary value that can compensate. The environmental and human impact of burning fossil fuels is King Kong compared to renewables’ Curious George.

Those seem like pretty good arguments so far as to why fossil fuels aren’t cheap. Why would we stick with that when we’ve got better alternatives? These are also some of the reasons that some governments are pursuing carbon trading and taxes, but that’s for later. And that’s not all!

For electricity, the writing is on the wall. Even without the above taken into account, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for several types of new renewable energy, such as utility-scale solar and wind, are now cheaper than existing fossil fuel such as coal plants. This is huge, because it means even taking into account the capital investment required to set up a new renewable power plant and the operating costs down the line, it’s still cheaper per year than just the operating costs of fossil fuel power plants already in existence. Pardon me for oversimplifying this but that’s the basic gist of it. Fossil fuel industry hypers used to like to use this same comparison while fossil fuel plants were still winning on a new (renewable) versus existing (fossil fuel) basis (normally you should compare new to new or existing to existing, right?) but now even that argument doesn’t hold any more. There are other challenges involved with replacing fossil fuels with renewables, but on a costs basis renewables are winning. Indeed, the experts are saying:

In sum, the pace of change in every sector will only increase as prices for clean energy decline. Attempts to hold back the tide of transition will inevitably fail.

The Lazard link above also mentions that the LCOE is a big deal because costs for “alternative” (renewable) versus “conventional” (fossil fuel) energy in developing in countries is even lower, meaning there would be little incentive for developing countries, where many  millions still lack access to reliable energy, to go for fossil fuels. There are other studies that show it’s possible to switch to 100% renewables for cheaper than what it would cost versus fossil fuels and using existing technology (more on that later). It’s not rocket science, we just have to have the will to recognize it and take advantage of the benefits that it could bring to the world. Wins that clean energy brings:

  1. Economic wins: cheaper energy, new businesses and markets, less costs to environment and humanity
  2. Human wins: better health and longevity, lower electric bills
  3. Environmental wins: cleaner air and water, fewer damaging weather/climate events

There are still challenges to be overcome, but it seems inevitable that they will be overcome. At any rate, this just goes to show that the landscape is changing, and there are huge opportunities for clean energy in the coming decades.

Discussion: What sort of clean energy opportunities do you know about for your home or community?

Photo Credit: NBC