Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Sustainable Energy

Can Renewables Become More than a Sideshow?

  • by Stephen Cass
  • August 18, 2009
  • King coal: U.S. electricity generation by energy source; electricity generation accounts for 33 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.

The great electrification projects of the 19th and 20th centuries created a world where (at least in developed countries) electricity is as common as clean water. They also created a world addicted to fossil fuels. Globally, over 40 percent of electricity is generated from coal and another 20 percent from natural gas, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

The consensus that carbon dioxide is changing the climate in dangerous ways has convinced most politicians, scientists, and industrialists that we must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a bill that calls for a 17 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions below 2005 levels by 2020.

But renewable power represents only about 9 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Solar power is responsible for a scant 0.02 percent. The reality is that renewable power and other alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear, remain too expensive to compete with coal and natural gas. Coal costs about two to four cents per kilowatt-hour; electricity from photovoltaics costs about five times that. Even with legislative efforts to increase the cost of emitting carbon, for the foreseeable future the imposed cost of emissions will probably to be too low to drive substantial investment in alternatives. Compounding the problem, the worldwide credit crisis that began last fall effectively halted construction of new types of power plants, many of which cost hundreds of millions to build.

This story is part of our September/October 2009 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Renewables are unlikely to end our reliance on fossil fuels within the next 20 years. But that is no reason for inaction. Smarter policy decisions and technological innovation can reduce what our energy sources contribute to climate change. Legislation that puts a price on carbon emissions is essential, but it must be based on a full accounting of environmental and economic costs. It is also critical that government and industry make a long-term commitment to funding energy research. The goals are clear: a smarter grid that can handle intermittent power sources and distribute and store electricity more efficiently; a realistic and safe approach to carbon sequestration; and lower-cost photovoltaics that could finally fulfill the immense potential of solar power.

The latest Insider Conversation is live! Listen to the story behind the story.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.