It happened quietly and without much fanfare. Much of the world is so focused on the necessity of dirty energy like coal and oil — who has it, how to get it, how much is left — that we barely noticed when renewables became competitive with fossil fuels when it comes to cost.
It’s true — the idea that renewable energies like solar and wind power are the virtuous but impractical pipe dreams of environmentalists is now hopelessly outdated. And here’s the key difference that gives green energy an edge over traditional carbon-based fuel sources: green energy is a technology while carbon is a resource. A technology is constantly being reshaped, revolutionized, and reimagined. It inevitably becomes cheaper and cheaper, more and more efficient over time as we get smarter. A resource may grow in value for a time, but ultimately it only depletes.
Just as predicted, solar energy from large scale projects is already 70 percent cheaper than it was a mere 10 years ago, and other alternative energies like wind and even algae are following suit. In some places, wind is already even cheaper than gas or coal, even without subsidies, such that some utility companies are choosing renewables based on the bottom line of profits alone, even in the conservative South of America.
If you’re an environmental optimist like me, you’ve seen this coming for years. But here’s what you might not have predicted: the rise of renewable energy heralds much, much more than just lower carbon emissions.
Every time throughout history that we as a species have unlocked a new form of energy, our progress across the board has skyrocketed, as this brief history of the rise of humans shows.
We’re only one short decade away a world where renewable energy is unarguably the cheapest, best option from every angle. So what will a new era of unlimited, clean, nearly-free energy look like?
An Answer to World Hunger
One of the unexpected byproducts of cheap sustainable energy is a sudden increase in available food for everyone. One of the largest costs associated with farming are fertilizers and pesticides produced using petroleum and natural gas. Once the competition for these drops, so will the prices of farming products. The cheap grains produced will, in turn, bring down the cost of animal feed and meat production.
Even once this cheaper food is grown, it can be shipped in vehicles powered by clean energy for pennies on the mile. By the time it actually reaches us, we’ll be looking at high quality, freely available, low environmental impact food for cheaper than ever before.
Cheaper Everything Else, Too
What actually goes into the cost of the things you buy? Raw materials, factory production, administration offices, transportation… all of these things will be cheaper than ever when energy costs drop. From the mining of materials to running robotic labor to powering office buildings, clean energy will reverberate in every aspect of our economy, and prices will drop for us on pretty much everything.
Development for All
Energy independence. It’s a catch phrase that politicians like to throw around, and for good reason. Any country that isn’t geographically blessed with rich energy reserves is reliant on expensive importation of foreign resources for essentially everything. This takes a particular toll on developing nations trying to modernize on borrowed resources.
The beauty of clean energy is that everyone has equal access, and there will never be a shortage. Between wind, solar, tidal, and others, every country in the world will suddenly have everything it needs to power its own development, right there at home. The money they save on importing fuel can in turn be reinvested in the wellbeing of the nation.
In fact, developing nations will gain new freedoms in so many ways. They’ll be able to leap straight over the now old fashioned step of creating expensive infrastructure for traditional energy and join the developed world much more quickly, and without the devastating environmental impact that such mass progress has been forecasted to have until now.
All of these global benefits, of course, go without even mentioning the most obvious boon: a safer, healthier world for ourselves and our children.