The green revolution and, in particular, renewable energy products such as solar power, wind turbines, geothermal and algae-based fuels are not waiting for viable technology — it already exists in many forms. What they are waiting for is a massive sea change in our antiquated financial accounting systems.
We keep hearing that green technology has too long a payback or too low an internal rate of return and just can’t compete with non-renewable coal, oil and natural gas, etc.
Now to be fair, renewables have two drawbacks that have to be considered in their use and integration into the power grid. The first is their low capacity factors. For example, wind farm turbines sit idle when the wind stops blowing, and solar power output drops sharply when the sun is not shining. On the other hand, non-renewable energy systems can operate 24 hours a day without interruption, so they will be used for some time to come as more dependable baseload power sources.
The second factor is evident when we compare installation and operating costs. Renewable installations spend 80 percent of their budget in the first year and 20 percent over their 20- or 30-year operating life. Non-renewables are the opposite; only 20 percent is spent on the initial installation and 80 percent on the next 20 or 30 years of operation. And so our antiquated and myopic accounting practices analyse these facts and then say that coal, oil and gas plants obviously have a better return on investment.
Of course as we run out of non-renewables, their power production will slowly dwindle. We should be prepared for that inevitable event by building up renewable energy options and developing technologies now. The book “Last hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartman covers that inevitability very well.
The Costs of Oil
We complain about $4+ per gallon gasoline, but people do not realize that we would likely pay over $10 a gallon if we add on the currently ignored direct social and economic costs of oil.
Economists recognize the existence of these costs and call them “externalities.” Other than this recognition, externalities are still not assigned to their correct sources.
As just one example, consider the enormous U.S. military budget, (currently a staggering $700 billion). A large portion of this cost is spent on the 800+ military stations maintained around the world that protect critical sea lanes for oil tankers and oil pipelines and act on a moment’s notice to attack any politically motivated disruptions to foreign oil field production or oil storage sites. A significant portion of that budget is a direct cost of oil.
And to that cost figure, we have to add the social costs of young soldiers being trained, deployed and killed, severely injured or handicapped for the rest of their lives. Then we must also consider the enormous stress this imposes on these soldier’s families and friends, both economically and emotionally. That is another direct cost of oil.
And on another front, consider the enormous costs of the oil spill in the Gulf and its effect on the ocean, wildlife and beach environments. Consider the effect on people’s health and livelihood and the stress they were under during hurricane seasons that threatened a resurgence of oil and toxic dispersant sludge to be thrown up on their shores. That is another cost of oil.
Consider poor mountain people in Afghanistan that are killed and injured due to drone attacks against Al Qaeda. Their injuries and deaths are simply written off as collateral damage, when the truth is that the U.S. is in that poor mountain region mainly due to the huge oil and gas fields located in southern Russia. These sources will eventually need a pipeline to transport the crude oil to a warm-water all-season coastal port where tankers can pick up and transport the oil to markets in the West.
The coal industry has similar externalized costs. Apart from carbon dioxide emissions, mercury and other heavy metals, coal-burning power plants emit over 100 times the radioactivity of nuclear plants producing the same amount of energy. These emissions cause inevitable negative health effects as it is exhausted into the atmosphere and carried to those people living downwind. In fact, annual deaths due to coal plant emissions are estimated at about 60,000 people in the U.S. alone, according to various concerned citizen groups.
Also the huge amounts of foreign aid paid to protect dictatorial regimes against the wishes of the people under their control are all direct costs of oil. Incidentally we see these regimes are starting to fail in the Middle East, due to their younger generation’s frustrations with a static society that has been kept backward and out of step with the modern world just to suit the oil interests.
And closer to home, a typical oil company’s income statement reveals enormous tax breaks, such as depletion allowances from taxes for using up a non-renewable resource, which make no economic or social sense.
And in more recent times, oil companies can drill in federal waters without paying any royalties. To date taxpayers currently subsidize the oil industry by as much as $4.8 billion a year — an industry that shows record profits for owners and shareholders.
And in the U.S., many states that are under the oil companies’ economic/political lobbying control do not charge them for exploitation of these non-renewable resources. These resources are state-owned assets, and the oil companies acquire them at a very low cost.
Renewables Make Sense
Solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy do not need these massive hidden support costs. They cannot be stolen by any super-power and are unlikely to be the source of dragged out wars and intrigue between nations under the sham of spreading democracy, which happens now over oil.
The sun is boundless, and in most mid- and southern-latitude countries, a surprisingly small surface area of solar plants can deliver most of the electricity a country needs. This is particularly true here in the U.S.
So taking all these factors into account, accounting practices must enter the 21st century, adapt to a global economy and account for ALL of the real costs of each energy resource as they are incurred worldwide. These numbers will reveal the most viable energy resource technologies.
This will require a sea change in accounting. Accounting principles and practice are still stuck in the industrial revolution where we witnessed horrendous costs to the environment and to workers. All these enormous social costs were externalized and thrown onto the back of the society. Companies were measured on profitability within incredibly narrow accounting standards. Often the most polluting, child-exploiting companies were deemed the most efficient and profitable and given the most support.
Admittedly there has been many improvements over the past 150 years as we can see with child labor laws enforced and many companies in the US and other developed countries are being asked to clean up their dangerous emissions and remove toxins from their workplaces and are starting to do so.
However we need to further expand our accounting horizons to a world-view and take that same approach to a global scale, especially when comparing renewable energy technologies and demand that the comparison be based on their real costs.
If we can achieve that vision, then the correct decisions for support of green renewable energy will become abundantly clear — and the world will be a safer and cleaner place for us all.
Lead image: Carbon emissions via Shutterstock