We will need fossil fuels like oil and gas for the foreseeable future. So there’s really little choice (sigh). We have to press ahead with fracking for natural gas. We must approve the Keystone XL pipeline to get Canadian oil.
his mantra, repeated on TV ads and in political debates, is punctuated with a tinge of inevitability and regret. But, increasingly, scientific research and the experience of other countries should prompt us to ask: To what extent will we really “need” fossil fuel in the years to come? To what extent is it a choice?
As renewable energy gets cheaper and machines and buildings become more energy efficient, a number of countries that two decades ago ran on a fuel mix much like America’s are successfully dialing down their fossil fuel habits. Thirteen countries got more than 30 percent of their electricity from renewable energy in 2011, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, and many are aiming still higher.
Could we? Should we?
He [Faith Biron, chief economist of the International Energy Agency] cautioned that a rapid expansion of renewable power would be complicated and costly. Using large amounts of renewable energy often requires modifying national power grids, and renewable energy is still generally more expensive than using fossil fuels. That is particularly true in the United States, where natural gas is plentiful and, therefore, a cheap way to generate electricity (while producing half the carbon dioxide emissions of other fossil fuels, like coal). Promoting wind and solar would mean higher electricity costs for consumers and industry.
Indeed, many of the European countries that have led the way in adopting renewables had little fossil fuel of their own, so electricity costs were already high. Others had strong environmental movements that made it politically acceptable to endure higher prices in order to reduce emissions.
As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo considers the boundaries of hydraulic fracturing in New York State and as Secretary of State John Kerry decides the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, how much we really “need” fossil fuels is worth pondering.
Mercifully, not a word about nuclear energy in this piece. And the observation that “strong environmental movements” in some European countries make it “politically acceptable to endure higher prices” needs underscoring.