Apr 11, 2024

Predicting The Pace of the Transition to Environmental Sustainability

The fire in Lahaina, Maui; extreme heat in Phoenix; floods in Vermont; and the yellow sky over New York City. The signs of a warming planet are everywhere, and the sense of urgency over the climate crisis grows. Each day, the newspapers report both on progress toward decarbonization and on political resistance from fossil fuel interests and communities opposing the siting of wind and solar farms. The sense of urgency seems lacking, and people enraged about climate change are stunned by those who do not share their sense of crisis.

The difficulty with the transition to renewable resources is our continued massive investment in the infrastructure that supports a linear rather than circular economy. Some of the debt used to build these facilities is not yet retired. Turning this huge economic boat around is going to take time. We simply cannot turn off the current economy, and the transition to environmental sustainability will take a generation—around twenty years—before it is mostly complete. When thinking about the complexity of the task, look to your own lifestyle. How much fossil fuel energy do you use each day? We use it to preserve and cook food, to connect to the internet, to watch movies, to speak to our families and friends, to travel, and to maintain a comfortable temperature in our homes.

Two pieces in the New York Times on August 13 provided vivid examples of the start and stop process we are seeing in the energy transition. Their headlines tell the story: “The Clean Energy Future Is Roiling Both Friends and Foes” and “The Clean Energy Future Is Arriving Faster Than You Think.” In the first piece, Jim Tankersley, Brad Plumer, Ana Swanson, and Ivan Penn report that:

“After years of fits and starts, the transition to renewable energy like wind and solar power is finally shifting into full gear in many parts of the world, including the United States, which has been buoyed by massive new subsidies from the Biden administration. But around the country, the effort is being slowed by a host of logistical, political and economic challenges…Shortcomings in the power grid can block newly generated electricity from reaching customers. Federal, state and local regulations, including often byzantine permitting requirements, threaten to delay some construction for years. So do the court battles that almost inevitably follow those permitting decisions.”

“Not in my backyard”—or “NIMBY”—politics are common in just about any American community whenever any large-scale siting decision is under consideration. In addition to the political obstacles, we see electric utilities trying to stretch the life of powerlines and get by with outmoded equipment. The fire in Lahaina presented a visible example of the danger of under-investment in modernizing our energy system. It’s no surprise that many corporations and electric utilities appear to be more concerned about short-term profits than long-term viability. The grid itself will play a different role in our energy future. Technological advances may further decentralize energy generation as home- and business-based solar arrays and batteries become less expensive, more efficient, and smaller. The frequent failure of the highly centralized power grid is causing homeowners to invest in alternatives. Today, that is typically a fossil fuel–powered generator. In ten years, it will be the auto battery and a home-based solar power system. In any case, assumptions about the load on the grid may be wrong if home energy systems become less expensive. In the face of this uncertainty and the dangers posed by the current grid, improved transmission and computer-controlled micro-girds are needed to bring our electrical system into the 21st century.

The second Times piece tells the other side of the story of America’s energy transition. According to David Gelles, Brad Plumer, Jim Tankersley, and Jack Ewing:

“Across the country, a profound shift is taking place that is nearly invisible to most Americans. The nation that burned coal, oil and gas for more than a century to become the richest economy on the planet, as well as historically the most polluting, is rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels…. Wind and solar power are breaking records, and renewables are now expected to overtake coal by 2025 as the world’s largest source of electricity… Fifteen years ago, solar panels, wind turbines and battery-powered vehicles were widely viewed as niche technologies, too expensive and unreliable for mainstream use… But clean energy became cheap far faster than anyone expected. Since 2009, the cost of solar power has plunged by 83 percent, while the cost of producing wind power has fallen by more than half. The price of lithium-ion battery cells fell 97 percent over the past three decades. Today, solar and wind power are the least expensive new sources of electricity in many markets, generating 12 percent of global electricity and rising. This year, for the first time, global investors are expected to pour more money into solar power — some $380 billion — than into drilling for oil.”

The political opposition to renewable energy by some conservative politicians won’t help fossil fuels compete with a lower-priced, more reliable renewable energy supply. The Times piece makes it clear that the energy transition in “red” states is being driven by the superiority of renewable energy. The keys to the energy transition are price and reliability; lower pollution is the byproduct of a modernized energy system. Sacrificing economic growth for a cleaner planet only sells in very particular situations. State laws mandating a carbon-free energy system in California and New York and federal financial subsidies have already enhanced investor confidence that the future will be free of fossil fuels. This, in turn, is accelerating the transition where political support is present. But where politicians oppose renewable energy or are indifferent, the technology must sell itself. It appears that this is starting to happen in the United States.

Climate is only one element of the environmental challenges we face. It is a profound and central challenge, but preserving what is left of the planet’s ecosystems and reducing toxic contamination is also a key element of the transition to environmental sustainability. Here again, we are starting to see progress. Biodegradable plastics have entered the marketplace. Currently, many of these plastics are only biodegradable if they are added to compostable food waste. However, there is every reason to believe that fully biodegradable plastics will eventually be developed.

Moreover, as I have written elsewhere, the true key to a circular economy will be the development of a waste management and mining system where the waste stream, rather than the planet, is utilized to obtain the resources needed for manufacturing. Coupled with renewable energy, we would then have a closed-loop system of production and consumption. Early efforts at using artificial intelligence and automation to mine garbage are already in commercial use. As waste disposal and raw materials become increasingly expensive, these waste mining systems become more cost-competitive. The public expenditures for waste disposal provide a potential revenue stream to retire the debt needed to invest in advanced systems of waste management and mining. As mining becomes more established, the resources recovered could also be used to generate municipal revenues. Just as a modern energy system based on renewable energy is demonstrating economic promise, I expect modern waste management systems to eventually do the same.

The underlying facts that drive the development of a circular economy are the size of the human population, the political demands globally for increased material consumption, and the finite resources we still draw from the earth. That system of production and consumption brought us the way of life we now enjoy in the developed world, but it is not sustainable. Over the next two decades, I expect that these facts will drive the transition to environmental sustainability. A combination of environmental rules and market forces will bring about the transition. In the meantime, we will experience summers like the one we are living through in 2023, and we can expect more of the same—and worse—as the planet continues to warm. But the trend lines in renewable energy show promise, and this first phase of the environmental transition will be in place faster now than predicted, but slower than many of us wish.