So, quick question: is energy use good or bad? This is what’s considered modern energy access in the developing world: enough to power a fan, two light bulbs and a radio, for just a few hours a day. What would your life be like with that little energy? We’re all here today because we have access to a lot more energy than that.
From a human perspective, energy use is good It allows us to live healthy, secure, modern lives. But from an environmental perspective, I think we could all agree that the way we generate energy today is pretty bad. There are a lot of negative consequences: air pollution, damage to ecosystems, and, most daunting of all, climate change. One of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st century is how to move billions of people in the developing world out of poverty, without catastrophically warming the planet.
It sounds impossible, right? I don’t think so. Not only is there reason to hope, but I believe it is possible, just not in the ways most of us might think. JFK once said: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” So, ten years ago, I started a foundation to support new ideas for addressing some of the world’s key challenges, namely climate change and global poverty.
Working with some of the world’s foremost experts, I learned how inextricably linked these issues are. Once I understood this, I realized that most of the comfortable truths I had believed about what it would take to power a planet were actually myths, myths. I needed to question. What you might not guess about me is that I was raised on a goat farm in Wisconsin, by hippie parents who met on a commune. So, we built our cabin and grew all our own vegetables, and to this day, my parents speak proudly of how we cooked and heated with a wood stove. We believed that modern high-energy living was ruining the planet and that we’d all be better off living more like our ancestors did.
While my family lived this way voluntarily, for as many as 2 billion people on the planet today without access to electricity, this lifestyle is not a choice and it can be really, really difficult I saw this first-hand when I studied and traveled in rural Latin America after college. While there, I met women like Silvia and her family in the Peruvian Amazon. Like everyone in the area, they relied on wood for energy, which she and her daughters had to gather and haul. They cooked over open fires, breathing smoke for many hours a day.
Time they might have spent on their education or on starting a business was instead devoted to manual labor. We all want to end poverty but we don’t seem to understand the ways in which energy is necessary for doing so. Reliable 24/7 power is essential for hospitals, schools, businesses and entire cities to thrive. So, most estimates show that energy use will double or even triple in the coming century, as people in the developing world strive for the same energy-rich lives that you and I enjoy. And we could help make that a reality for them without overheating the planet.
But it’s only going to work if we’re able to generate clean, cheap and reliable energy across the world I was raised to believe that we could power the planet with renewables and energy efficiency alone. But the deeper I looked, the less convinced I became. Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, have experienced exponential growth due to massive public support and trillions of dollars invested, but, despite this rate of growth, wind and solar still make up less than 3% of the global energy mix. So where does the majority of our energy still come from? A four-letter word you can’t say on television: coal.
So, even though it’s incredibly bad for the planet and for our health, it’s cheap, it’s scalable, and unfortunately, it’s on the rise. More than 2,000 coal plants are currently being planned worldwide. Now, you might be thinking that, with continued innovation, solar and wind will soon replacing coal and other fossil fuels in large quantities, but here’s the fundamental challenge: there’s no solar energy when the sun isn’t shining, and there’s no wind power when the wind isn’t blowing, and sometimes, due to the seasonal fluctuations, they provide very little power at all for weeks. We don’t yet have the ability to store energy during off hours on any meaningful scale. In other words, wind and solar are inherently unreliable.
And reliability is really important when it comes to energy. We rightfully expect the lights to come on when we flip the switch, or the electricity to work when we end up in a hospital. So, you may have heard that Germany is powered mostly by renewable energy, but the reality is Germany still gets more than half its energy from fossil fuels, and, as Germany has tried to scale up wind and solar, their electricity rates have tripled Germany may be able to afford really expensive energy, but do you know who can’t? Countries like India, Kenya and Ghana, that are trying to rapidly move large populations out of poverty. So, while wind and solar have a place in the global energy mix, it’s highly unlikely these technologies will ever fully power the modern world, and almost definitely not in a time frame that matters for addressing climate change.
If we’re going to address climate change and give people like Silvia a shot at a better life, it’s imperative that we dramatically scale up the technologies uniquely suited for this purpose. The good news is there are technologies that bring us much closer to a realistic solution. The bad news is you might not like the sound of them I know I didn’t. Ironically, one of the most controversial of these technologies has been around for decades.