But there’s one big place for optimism, says Professor of Practice Bruce Usher: Renewable energy is quickly replacing fossil fuels as the world’s primary source of energy.
“Renewable energy is the future, it is no longer fringe,” says Usher, who is the Elizabeth B. Strickler ‘86 and Mark T. Gallogly ‘86 Faculty Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. “Most people in the industry have already recognized the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is pretty much a done deal. This is going to happen. What we don’t know is how fast.”
Such is the focus of Usher’s new book, Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century, published this month by Columbia University Press. The book traces the rise of renewable energy from the windmill to the Tesla and highlights how solar and wind power are quickly replacing fossil fuel.
To his point: Texas, cradle of the fossil fuel industry, is ramping up wind energy production so fast that it has already surpassed coal in generating capacity. More than 200 mayors have committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Last month, the publicly traded utility giant Xcel announced it would go carbon-free by 2050.
Overall, demand for renewables is booming. According to Deloitte’s 2019 Renewable Energy Industry Outlook, “while the current US administration is not focused on decarbonization, states, cities, communities, and businesses with increasingly ambitious sustainability goals are driving renewable growth.” The Business School, as well, is encouraging future leaders through the newly created Three Cairns Climate Fellowship, which funds students working on projects that address sustainability and climate change issues.
Ideas at Work met with Usher to hear why he’s optimistic about the potential for renewable energy technology to combat climate change — a topic that will be discussed during the Tamer Center’s annual Climate Science & Investment Conference in May. The following Q&A was edited for length and clarity.
Ideas at Work: Why are you optimistic about the renewable energy sector?
Usher: It’s simple economics. It’s a better product at a better price.
IAW: What kind of progress do you expect to see in 2019?
Usher: We’ll start to see renewables becoming more and more mainstream. In fact, 2019 may be the year when renewables become the default option for consumers. We used to think of coal as our default. Then natural gas came into the fold. I think renewables will soon be the default.
The other thing that starts to happen in 2019 or shortly thereafter is with electric vehicles. Until recently, if you wanted an electric vehicle you basically had two choices: Tesla or a Nissan LEAF. Consumers will start to have many options as a huge number of models hit the market in the next couple of years. How consumers react to that is a big question mark, not because these aren’t good products but because of a lack of charging infrastructure.
IAW: What was the reason for writing your new book?
Usher: The goal of the book is to correct some misconceptions about the renewable energy industry. Surprisingly, you still hear that it’s too expensive, it doesn’t work well, it’s not reliable. The No. 1 thing I hear over and over again is, “It’s too expensive. How much is it going to cost me to use renewables?” And the answer is, “It’s not going to cost you anything.”
At this point, the vast majority of new installations, wind and solar, are by public utilities. Of the electrons coming out of your wall socket today, a decent percentage come from wind and solar. And that’s a good thing because ultimately that’s where most of our power comes from. And that’s where most of our greenhouse gases come from. This transition is very important.
IAW: Do renewables face headwinds in 2019 from the US-China trade war?
Usher: The trade war does have an impact, because most of the cheapest solar panels are manufactured in China. Obviously, if panels are more expensive because of tariffs then that will slow installations.
Clearly, at the federal level we’re not seeing a lot of support for climate change initiatives, but there is a lot of interest in helping renewables — renewable tax credits are still there and the electric vehicle tax credits are still there. At a state level, many states are doing great things in the sector and a lot of what’s driving it is jobs. There are far more jobs in the renewables sector than there is in the coal industry.
IAW: Is progress happening fast enough to avoid dangerous global warming?
Usher: At the current trajectory, probably not. But the caveat is that if we look back at the forecasts for renewables year by year, they’ve consistently been too low. We’ll almost always do more than we think. So the question is not, “Is this energy transition going to happen?” It’s a done deal. But it’s a little hard to predict when. The key question is timing, and that’s hard to answer because climate change is very complex and difficult to predict.
This renewable energy transition could happen too slowly, meaning we’ll have a hell of a mess. Or it might pull us back from the edge of catastrophic climate change in time. We don’t yet know.
IAW: Why is climate change so hard to tackle?
Usher: This is particularly tricky because of two problems. It’s not just a long-term threat, it’s generational. We’re not ready to deal with that. And secondly, this is a global challenge and we’re not very good at working together. In fact, we’re getting worse at working together amid the rise in nationalism. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, between renewable energy and electric vehicles, we’re about halfway to solving the problem of carbon emissions. That’s pretty amazing. In the US, in the last several years, the majority of new power construction has been renewable. No one’s building coal plants in the US anymore — and they’re shutting down quite rapidly.
The thing about climate change that’s extremely frustrating is, unlike other big problems we face as a society, this one we actually know how to solve. We know what the problem is, and we actually have the solutions at hand. We simply lack the will.
About the researcher
Bruce Usher is a Professor of Practice and the Elizabeth B. Strickler '86 and Mark T. Gallogly '86 Faculty Director of the Tamer Center for Social...Read more.