Advancements in clean energy—particularly wind and solar energy—are quickly approaching a tipping point. It won’t be long before wind and solar will be able to compete directly with traditional forms of power generation without the need for subsidies. And when that happens, there will be a sweeping change in Western culture.
As soon as clean energy is economically competitive with (not cheaper; just competitive with) traditional energy, it just won’t make sense anymore to use coal power on anywhere near the scale we do today. To make coal more palatable, government and industry will combine to clean up coal power plant emissions somewhat to continue to provide a solid base load of electricity. But this will, naturally, raise the cost of coal power and narrow the cost gap even further with cleaner energy forms—particularly natural gas.
As coal plants age at the same time their pollution outweighs their low cost, they will gradually be replaced by natural gas plants, which can be more easily shut down when power demand is low. They will fall from an approximate 55% share of the power market to something like 15% over the next 20 to 30 years. This is an economic imperative that stands apart from legislation that could accelerate it as well as from the strange emotions of coal-huggers and climate-change-deniers, who weirdly don’t even hope that clean energy becomes successful.
The advance of natural gas power is key, because solar and wind power are less predictable than gas and coal, even on a large scale, where the vagaries of weather start to even out. Even with plenty of gas-fired power plants, it will be necessary to more carefully manage the energy grid than we have in the past.
Historically, a good deal of electrical power has been wasted in the evenings and in mild weather because all that rock-solid base-load energy from coal (as well as nuclear, hydro, and geothermal) can’t just be shut down when demand drops. Nor can it be ramped up quickly when demand peaks. But with clean energy, both supply and demand can vary—and vary independently of one another. Fortunately, there are a couple of solutions.
First, an enterprising power company could install its own power-hungry machinery to, for example, electrolyze water to produce hydrogen whenever power production oversupplies the demand for it. This would produce lots of cheap hydrogen to run the power plant’s own fleet of vehicles and to sell (it’s usually made today by stripping hydrogen from natural gas).
Second, upgrading the grid to a smart grid could allow consumers to help regulate their energy use—and related costs—automatically. A smart grid is an electrical grid that allows for communication between the power source and the power consumer. Specifically, the power plant can send a signal to machinery to turn off when demand peaks on a hot summer day or turn on when demand drops on a mild autumn night.
Building this sort of system should actually be relatively easy. It merely requires the machinery (be it your dishwasher or an industrial grinder) to have a module that can connect to the Internet to receive signals from the local power plant. A properly designed smart grid could send specific price information to the machinery, so that businesses could program a power-hog machine to run only when the price of electricity drops to pennies per kilowatt-hour.
The UK already has a modest version of this called “Economy 7,” where the (exorbitant) price of electricity drops to a pittance for seven hours in the middle of the night.
The simultaneous arrival of electric cars will fit nicely into this scenario. Cars hooked up to the smart grid can charge cheaply overnight when demand is always lowest. Designing the system intelligently would include creating incentives for companies and apartment complexes to install smart chargers so that cars can stay connected to the grid whenever they aren’t being driven.
And all those battery packs plugged into people’s garages and parking spots can act as an excellent place for the grid to temporarily store excess power or draw extra power as supply and demand change. After all, with many millions of cars plugged in at any given time, allowing the power grid access to even 5% of that would provide an enormous cushion when the noon-day sun causes air conditioners to start cranking. Of course, the charger wouldn’t draw power from a nearly drained battery. Instead, only cars that are nearly fully charged would be considered available to the power company.
The effect all this would have on Western culture would be substantial—but not universally life changing. It means that dirty coal power will gradually fade away at the same time that gasoline-powered cars become collectors’ items and museum pieces. This is likely to relieve the conditions that are contributing to global climate change, ensuring a happier, pollution-free future for everyone.
It also means quieter, cleaner, cooler cities. No longer will trucks and buses roar away from stop lights; they’ll wheeze and whine moderately. No longer will hot exhaust and leaking engine oil contribute to the summer heat or turn the snow black. In fact, snow removal will be slightly more of a problem, since battery-powered cars won’t melt the snow as much as heat-wasting gas cars do.
If you are skeptical about this, consider: we are already living in the brighter future of our grandfathers’ day. Air and water pollution from the 1860s to the 1960s was appalling and virtually inescapable. It contributed to white flight to the suburbs in the ’50s and ’60s, which impoverished those trapped in urban areas and contributed to crime and ruin. But the environmental enlightenment of the ’60s and ’70s led to clean air and clean water legislation that really made a difference in the health of our cities, towns, and waterways.
That trend of white flight from city to suburbs would likely reverse with cleaner cities. It will be a seller’s market again in urban real estate; and blighted areas will be revived, crime will fall further, and restaurant and arts districts will thrive as never before.
What stands in the way of this future are things like cheap gas prices, which lure Americans once again into the comfortable seats of trucks and SUVs; and also the NIMBY mentality that tries to keep wind turbines on the other side of the horizon; and of course dull-witted, short-sighted corporations that try to protect their dirty little corner of the marketplace rather than transform the whole marketplace into one that supports a cleaner, brighter, and more prosperous future.
But if the technology continues its advance, as technology generally does, the short-sighted corporations will lose out to the competition; the NIMBYs will find that others are happy—and even fashionable—to have wind turbines out their back window; and those trucks and SUVs will mostly be running on electric power.