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America loves oil: How economically feasible is the switch to renewable energy?

By: Ana Y.



Offshore Oil Rig, Oxnard, Ventura County, California

Photo by Zachary Theodore, via Unsplash.


Near the end of October 2012, the United States faced an unexpected catastrophic event.


As families on the east coast region of the country began preparing themselves for Halloween: decorating homes, buying costumes and candy, and picking out the neighborhoods that they would go trick-or-treating in, a storm began to brew.


On October 26th, a Category 1 hurricane from the Caribbean Sea made headlines as it headed into the vicinity of the east coast, leading New York, Maryland, Washington, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina to all declare a state of emergency (CNN Editorial Research, 2020). The storm, which had been detected four days earlier, would soon lead to the entire eastern seaboard declaring a state of emergency, as well as the shutdown of important services among some of the country’s largest coastal cities including transit, which caused a blockade of nearly 11 million commuters. By October 30th, 7.9 million households and businesses were without power, and by Halloween, the east coast began converting to full-on recovery mode as transit services, federal agencies, and the New York Stock Exchange all began to reopen.


After the storm vanished on November 1st, the country initiated cost assessments on the damage the hurricane had inflicted. With a peak ranking of Category 3 by the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, Hurricane Sandy ended up becoming the most destructive hurricane of the Atlantic hurricane season and resulted in $68.7 billion (USD) in damage, making it the fifth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history (it was the second-costliest at the time of occurrence in 2012). It was even able to impact several landlocked states, as well, including West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, which all experienced some type of damage including power-outages, summing the total impact to 24 U.S. states.


Hurricane Sandy, despite its monstrosity and efforts of postponing normal aspects of life for the millions of people living on the east coast, would soon prove itself to not be the last extremely destructive storm that halts normality. In 2017, three U.S. Atlantic hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria would cause a collective $265 million (USD) in damage and affect 47 million American lives (Rice, 2018).

With 164 million people living near coastal areas and 8.6 million living in a coastal area prone to flooding, the United States faces a major dilemma on how it will diminish the exacerbation of coastal flooding due to climate change (U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, 2020). As climate change progressively worsens, short-term solutions such as the proposed method to pump billions of tons of sulfate gases into the atmosphere to shade (and therefore cool oceans) to prevent hurricanes from occurring are becoming more irresponsible than the mitigation that they insinuate. The only real method of decreasing the number of hurricanes and the billions of dollars in damage that they cause to the U.S. every year is to take action on climate change.


But where do we start?


In a 2007 edition of Scientific American, David Biello, the author of The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age and the science curator for TED, the world’s most famous idea platform, gave us ten solutions for climate change: “Forego Fossil Fuels,” “Infrastructure Upgrade,” “Move Closer to Work,” “Consume Less,” “Be Efficient,” “Eat Smart, Go Vegetarian?” “Stop Cutting Down Trees,” “Unplug,” “One Child,” “Future Fuels,” and “Experiment Earth” (Biello, 2007). Among these solutions is a common theme: greenhouse gas emissions, as almost all humans on the planet currently rely on fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere (in 2018, CO2 accounted for 81.3% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions), and all of these solutions would result in a decrease in carbon dioxide use.


Greenhouse gases are anthropogenic gases released into the atmosphere from simple activities humans do every day such as driving a fuel-based vehicle or using natural gas as a form of energy in homes; or from more industry-based activities such as factory farming or producing goods. But despite their universality, they bring way much more harm than good, as they are intricately unethical for use due to their ability to trap heat from the sun which causes global warming to accelerate.


Knowing that they are unethical for use alone, one may question why the use of these harmful gases hasn’t banned altogether already. The use of renewable energy, or energy derived from naturally replenished resources that do not emit any harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, would create a trivial environmental impact, and the switch to entirely renewable energy resources would mitigate the emission of the majority of harmful greenhouse gases that are leading global warming to cause climate change. Yet, the truth is that it isn’t nearly as simple to put said words into action.


In 2019, an energy analysis from Wood Mackenzie estimated that the cost to switch just the United States alone to renewable energy entirely would be $4.5 trillion (Pearce, Gardiner, & Mingle, 2019). That figure is an apex considering the country’s fiscal budget for 2020 was $4.79 trillion (Up to Us, 2020). However, noting that the United States produces 15% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, switching to 100% renewable energy would be a powerful move that would dramatically decrease the effects these unethical gases have on the environment (EPA, 2019). But even with serious action implemented in the United States, this transition only buys us time.


The world will continue to run on fossil fuels as long as oil oligarchies remain in existence, of which each consists of some of the most powerful people on the planet (Amadeo, 2020). These oligarchies have existed for centuries (ex. Russia and Saudi Arabia) and hold an incredibly strong influence over the governments of the largest fossil fuel emitting countries. Even with them out of the picture somehow, there would still need to be a solution for replacing gas in vehicles with a renewable energy alternative.


Until a plan is set in place within the United States by the government that takes action on the detrimental environmental impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, the fate of the country lies in dire straits. The governmental leadership would need to implement an outline assessing the economics of renewable energy and how the country will afford this adaption. Whether the timetable for implementation will be slowly over multiple decades or within a few years, the United States will have to restructure its federal budget to reallocate a gargantuan amount of funds towards renewable energy. This slow action and talk about doing so, however, heightens the fear many have that we only have until 2030 to prevent the irreversible damage that climate change will have on the planet (UN General Assembly, 2019).


In the meantime, the United States can only expect that extreme weather events such as hurricanes will persist and become even deadlier than what they may have perceived to be the worst of it. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some citizens of the United States are at threat for another catastrophe that looms in the background: Tropical Storm Isaias. Though not even the most advanced scientist can predict what impact it will have on the states that it touches down on, its existence alone proves that without quick action, no one is safe from anything.


Discussion Questions:

  • If the US switches entirely to renewable energy, how would the country be able to afford it over the next ten years? What federal funds could they reallocate?

  • What kinds of solutions are going to be possible for replacing gasoline fuel in vehicles?

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