Renewable energy's clean, cheap -- and disruptive -- potential

by Ken Midkiff

People urging more reliance on coal-fired or nuclear power plants are akin to the dinosaurs, who could not recognize the approaching dangers that led to their demise.
Wind and solar power are the energy waves of the future, gradually supplanting old-school techniques that have damaged us environmentally, economically, politically, and personally.  The Columbia City Council acknowledged as much at their last meeting, with a 5-2 vote to significantly increase the city's use of renewable energy.

Several years ago, I was appointed -- as a token environmentalist -- to a Missouri state commission charged with issuing a report on the future of energy.  A scant few of us determined to increase wind and solar power use.

Coal-fired power plant bigwigs, however, dominated the commission, focusing on ways to increase their influence and burn more fossil fuels.   The CEO of Ameren told me - in a private conversation - that his company would NEVER adopt a renewable energy portfolio.  The head of Rural Electric Co-ops was so upset about my non-coal advocacy that he challenged me to a fist fight (I declined).

My side ultimately lost, but given the composition of the commission, that was predicable.

What was less predictable was just how wrong the commission's pro-fossil report turned out to be.  Fossil fuel use is plummeting, while wind turbine and photo-voltaic (solar) grid use is on the rise.

The reasons are simple economics. The sun and wind are free and the price to capture their energy is coming down. Fossil-fuel power plants, meanwhile, have become a poor investment.

We need only look to nuclear power, once so promising, to see the fate that awaits coal and oil.   Peaking in the 1970s, nuke plant construction today has fallen to zero.   But like fossil fuels, nukes have left plenty of scars, from deserts marred by uranium mining to nuclear plant accidents that have decimated places like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Spent nuclear fuel rods also litter the planet, a main waste product of nuclear energy.   Despite their harmless-sounding name, spent rods emit radioactivity for decades, even centuries, after decommissioning.   After almost 70 years, there is still no safe way to store them.  

To be sure, fossil-fuel advocates have created significant obstacles to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.  But like all disruptive technologies, the non-destructive economics of renewable energy is gradually destroying industries built around fuel sources buried deep within Mother Earth, geothermal power notably excepted.

Like the threatened ostrich that buries its head in the sand, or the endangered dinosaurs that didn't look up to see that asteroid called "fate" hurdling their way, opponents of wind and solar power should stop looking down for energy and start looking up -- and ahead.