Walking into a field of solar panels. (Courtesy Reuters)
Nearly 90 percent of the world’s economy is fueled every year by digging up and burning about four cubic miles of the rotted remains of primeval swamp goo. With extraordinary skill, the world’s most powerful industries have turned that oil, gas, and coal into affordable and convenient fuels and electricity that have created wealth, helped build modern civilization, and enriched the lives of billions.
Yet today, the rising costs and risks of these fossil fuels are undercutting the security and prosperity they have enabled. Each day, the United States spends about $2 billion buying oil and loses another $4 billion indirectly to the macroeconomic costs of oil dependence, the microeconomic costs of oil price volatility, and the cost of keeping military forces ready for intervention in the Persian Gulf.
In all, the United States spends one-sixth of its GDP on oil, not counting any damage to foreign policy, global stability, public health, and the environment. The hidden costs are also massive for coal and are significant for natural gas, too. Even if oil and coal prices were not high, volatile, and rising, risks such as fuel insecurity and dependence, pollution-caused illnesses, energy-driven conflicts over water and food, climate change, and geopolitical tensions would make oil and coal unattractive.
Weaning the United States from those fossil fuels would require two big shifts: in oil and electricity. These are distinct -- nearly half of electricity is made from coal, and almost none is made from oil -- but power plants and oil burning each account for over two-fifths of the carbon that is emitted by fossil-fuel use. In the United States, three-fourths of electricity powers buildings, three-fourths of oil fuels transportation, and the remaining oil and electricity run factories. So saving oil and electricity is chiefly about making buildings, vehicles, and factories far more efficient -- no small task.
But epochal energy shifts have happened before. In 1850, most U.S. homes used whale-oil lamps, of whale oil rose, so between 1850 and 1859, coal-derived synthetic fuels grabbed more than five-sixths of the lighting market. In 1859, Edwin Drake struck oil, and kerosene, thanks to generous tax breaks, soon took over. Whalers, astounded that they had run out of customers before they ran out of whales, begged for federal subsidies on national security grounds, but Thomas Edison’s 1879 invention of electric lighting snuffed out their industry. Whales had been accidentally saved by technological innovators and profit-maximizing capitalists.
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