The virtuous cycle – a repeat

The following post was written about six years ago. Since that time the production cost of renewable energy has fallen to be competitive and, in some cases, lower than fossil fuel energy costs. And, that is without the residual costs of fossil fuel acquisition, transport, litigation, and maintenance.

The virtuous cycle is a nice term, but what in the heck does it mean? In the context under which I most recently saw it used is with one of two ultimate rationales why the move to renewable energy will begin to accelerate and replace fossil fuel energy sources.

Of course, renewable energy has many benefits and as the cost of production continues to fall, it will be on par with current fossil fuel energy production costs. This does not even consider the other costs that can be avoided which are inherent in the fossil fuel process. And, a key rationale for the migration will be the avoidance of the significant water loss that occurs in the fossil fuel and nuclear power production process through dissipated steam and loss of water to retrieve natural gas and oil through fracking.

But, the virtuous cycle will be one that will join water as the key reason for the accelerated migration to renewable energy. In essence, in fossil fuel energy production, energy has to be used to create energy. For example, to create electricity with fossil fuel, we have to burn coal or natural gas to boil water into steam to turn the turbines which turn the electromagnet generators. We have to exhaust energy to make more energy.

With renewable energy, we need not exhaust energy to make energy. The sun will shine and the wind will blow. They are doing this already, so we are merely harnessing that energy to produce electricity thereby creating a virtuous cycle. Using monetary terms, we do not need to spend money to make money, once the solar panels or windmills are created. Yes, we need to maintain them, but we do not have to spend energy to create new energy.

This matters now as energy companies look to build new energy production facilities. As a company considers the building over years of a natural gas-fired plant, the virtuous cycle of renewable energy may render that natural gas investment obsolete before a return on investment can be achieved. Companies will migrate to cost-effective and environmentally friendly energy sources. The fossil fuel industry is big on focusing on the cost and jobs as reasons to do more of the status quo, yet the production cost will flip the other way and will become more favorable for renewables. The jobs are already there and growing rapidly with double-digit increases.

So, when  people say we cannot afford to move to renewable energy, that is actually a very short-sighted argument. When you factor all of the added costs on environment and health of fossil fuel acquisition, use, and future maintenance, the costs are already in the favor of renewables. The virtuous cycle will accelerate the move even more.

Renewable energy has become cheaper than coal

An article in The Guardian caught my eye yesterday, entitled “‘Coal is on the way out’: study finds fossil fuel now pricier than solar or wind.” This is not surprising to me as the production costs of solar and wind energy have significantly dropped over time, yet it likely catches some as a big surprise. Per the article:

“Around three-quarters of US coal production is now more expensive than solar and wind energy in providing electricity to American households, according to a new study.

‘Even without major policy shift we will continue to see coal retire pretty rapidly,’ said Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. ‘Our analysis shows that we can move a lot faster to replace coal with wind and solar. The fact that so much coal could be retired right now shows we are off the pace.'”

When all of the costs are factored in, coal is even more expensive than indicated above. For example, coal energy continues to be costly long after it is burned through ash maintenance, leakage and litigation. Yet, now production costs are largely higher for coal than renewables. As the article notes the decline of coal is passed the tipping point.

But, don’t just take the word of this article. In the first two years of the Trump Presidency, more coal plants have been closed than in the entire first four-year term of Obama’s Presidency. This would have happened anyway regardless of who was President, but I mention Trump as even someone who campaigned on keeping coal plants open cannot stave off this trend.

If that is insufficient, note there are currently more than four times the number of solar jobs than coal jobs in the US. And, the wind energy jobs are growing very quickly in the Midwest, with Texas, Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota among others leading the way. In an article called “Will 2019 be the year of the turbine – wind energy continues to surge in Texas” in the Caller Times, in 2017 Texas provided about 15% of its energy through wind and has and will continue to increase that percentage in 2018 and beyond.

I feel for the coal miners, but they are owed the truth and help in retraining for new jobs and some transitional financial support. In the same areas where coal is found, the wind blows and sun shines. I implore legislators to help invest in the new economy in these areas. This should have been happening all along as this trend is not new.