Question: Is there a source of renewable energy that can
replace fossil fuel? Bill McKibbon
: I think there is
no source of renewable energy that replaces one-for-one fossil fuel.
Fossil fuel is really great stuff. It’s concentrated in a few places.
It’s incredibly energy-rich, dense in BTUs. It’s easy to transport. It’s
too bad that it’s wrecking the planet. There is no silver bullet that
replaces it. Maybe there is enough silver buckshot if we gather it all
up. The energies that we will rely on in the future, things like wind
and solar, are far more diffuse and scattered than fossil fuel. They’re
everywhere, but nowhere in overwhelming abundance and hence the tactic,
the sort of thinking, about how to gather them together is going to have
to be different. Instead of a few centralized big burners, you know,
going through mountains of coal we’re going to have to have an energy
system that looks more like the Internet with lots and lots of nodes;
lots and lots of people bringing stuff to market and taking stuff away. I
have solar panels all over the roof of my house in Vermont. On a sunny
day I’m a utility. I’m firing electrons down the grid. You know my
neighbor is cooling his beer with the sunlight that falls on my shingles
okay. That’s good in all kinds of ways. It lets us put environmentally
benign technologies like solar panels into pretty easy use. It also
reduces the vulnerability of these systems. You know it’s not just banks
that are too big to fail in our economy. It’s the agricultural system
and the energy system as well. It would be much better to have an energy
system that depends on lots and lots of solar panels on lots of
people’s roofs because, I don’t know, say some terrorist decides that he
wants to take out my solar panels. He could climb up on my roof with a
hammer and dismantle them and then I have a problem, but it’s not a
problem that cascades across the transmission grid you know and it’s not
spewing deadly solar particles into the atmosphere either. It’s a
relatively small problem and in a planet that is going to have plenty of
problems this century we need to work hard on keeping them small. Question:
How can we incentivize people to go solar?
Well this is a place where government subsidy makes sense.
We need to jumpstart the production of all this stuff. The cost of them
is falling pretty rapidly and it will fall more rapidly as we get more
and more of them in place. The manufacturing cost curve works to our
advantage here. It makes a lot more sense to subsidize solar panels than
it does to subsidize coal and oil, which we continue to do in large
quantities because we’ve known how to burn coal and oil for 200 years.
We’ve gotten most of the manufacturing advantage that we’re going to get
from any subsidy. Now it’s just pure payoff to politically connected
players, so that is certainly part of it.
Recorded on April 13, 2010