The energy world is in constant evolution. In Iowa, we get a glimpse of the future as we drive past farm fields bristling with wind turbines. Most of the rest of the country experiences a coal- and oil-dominated economy with few clues as to what tomorrow will look like.
China gets it. China is hardly a model of clean energy. We are used to seeing photos of their extreme air pollution. However, China is a world leader in renewable energy technology. They are creating clean energy jobs and driving down costs. More solar photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity directly from sunlight, are produced in China than anywhere else in the world.
The 20th century was an enormously productive era in the United States in terms of industrial development, growth, and improvement of the well being of the populace. We achieved a position of world prominence and in some respects earned the designation as “the greatest nation on earth.”
In 1900, we were just beginning to flex our industrial muscle. Coal was king — for making steel, generating electricity, powering the trains and steamers that were the backbone of our transportation system. Petroleum use was in its infancy. The automobile was a novelty and not more than a dream for most people. This was the start of the golden age of (fossil fuel) energy.
Persons looking forward in 1900 could not have imagined what the country and the world would look like by 2000. Similarly we cannot begin to imagine what 2100 will look like. Changes during the 21st century will match or exceed the magnitude of those occurring in the 1900s.
We are now well into the 21st century, still riding the wave of plentiful supplies of oil and coal. We are only starting to recognize that cheap fossil-derived energy is only cheap if there is no accounting for environmental damages and the still unknown future costs of climate change.
The next hundred years, like the last hundred, will be influenced to an enormous degree by our energy environment. It will be vastly different from what we are seeing today. The pressure to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and the push toward renewable energy sources will dramatically intensify.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping recently reached an accord with targets for reducing carbon emissions in the U.S., and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.
Political pushback against this initiative has been quick and sharp. The opinion often expressed is that the U.S. is moving farther and faster then China. This opposition is short-sighted in two respects. First, we are seeing a breakthrough on cooperation by the world’s two largest polluters on a problem that must be addressed. Second, agreement by China indicates they are already planning to invest and continue to move forward with renewable energy.
Future historians may look back on the 21st century as the golden age of renewable energy. At our peril, we may choose to smugly sit back and spend our current fossil energy bonanza. However, the tide is already turning and renewables will increasingly dominate the world energy scene. We can use our current strength to establish our position in the emerging world renewables marketplace, or we can remain complacent and watch other economies own the next golden age.