We’ve Been Spoiled By Gas

Unfortunately, no one source of renewable energy will be able to hold a candle to fossil fuel.
  • Transcript


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? 

Bill McKibbon: 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