To the Trump administration, the world is facing two choices when it comes to the future of energy: more coal and fossil fuels, or a return to the 1800s, when people lit their homes with lanterns and got around via horse and buggy.
At the annual CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, reporter Lisa Friedman asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry about certain countries’ plans to stop using coal. Mocking the decision, Perry responded, “I think it’s a fool’s errand to stand up and say ‘by 2030 we’re going to be done with fossil fuels’ … and what? Go back to living like we were living in the mid-1800s?”
Perry seemed to ignore the fact that he runs a department that oversees many of the federal government’s renewable energy programs. Experts in Perry’s own department have made clear that, not only are coal and nuclear uneconomical, but renewable energy keeps getting cheaper and more reliable.
A draft Energy Department study that Perry requested last year concerning whether EPA regulations and renewable energy deployment were a threat to grid stability undermines Perry’s core position. The draft study found that, far from threatening grid reliability by forcing some baseload fossil fuel and nuclear plants to go offline, deploying more renewable energy to the grid actually helps the grid become more stable.
The final results revealed that renewables were a minor contributor to the trend of closed-down coal and nuclear plants, if at all. The real cause was cheap fracked gas.
Instead, the study showed that a better option in dealing with future need to balance high renewable power production and variable energy demand would be to use a network of plugged-in electric cars, with large communal battery storage capacity, to store excess wind or solar power production for later use. That option, the study concluded, could help get the grid to 100 percent renewable production relatively easily.
Additionally, a separate study last year found that building and running new renewable energy capacity is cheaper than running old coal and nuclear plants in many areas in many places around the world. That study, conducted by financial firm Lazard Ltd., revealed that, in the developing world, it was more costly to operate conventional energy sources, allowing the electric energy market to bloom in countries like China and India.
Just as the use of mobile phones has spread across the developing world, skipping the installation of an intervening landline telephone system, the developing world does not have to decide between a lack of electricity, or a coal-fired power plant. So many in the developing world can, and in some cases already are, choosing renewable energy options to power their homes and businesses.
Moving toward renewables in place of fossil fuels, then, is not just for wealthier countries that have already deployed fossil fuel infrastructure to power their economies (for instance, the U.K. recently dropped its own carbon emissions down to levels last seen in the 1890s). Developing nations can choose to deploy more renewable energy, more cheaply and easily, than following in the developed world’s exact footsteps.
Last year, Perry famously advocated for fossil fuels as a way to stop sexual assault and death in places like Africa.
“People are dying…in Africa,” Perry said at an event sponsored by the oil and gas industry, after protesters asked him why he was against clean air. “… A young girl told me to my face, ‘One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I’m not going to have to read by the light of the fire and have those fumes literally killing people’ — from the standpoint of sexual assault, when the lights are on, when you have lights that shine, the righteousness, if you will, [shines] on those types of acts.”
It’s safe to say that no one on either side of the energy debate advocates darkness. But there are better ways of achieving “lights that shine” — righteously or not — than setting up a big coal plant.