The men who drilled the world’s first commercial oil well in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania, probably knew they had jobs that had never existed before, but it is a fair bet they had no inkling that they were on the brink of changing the world. The operation was derided by locals as Drake’s Folly, after Edwin Drake, the former train conductor who oversaw the long-shot project. It took more than a year of false steps and trial and error for a drill to hit a pool of oil only 69 feet deep. Even afterward the impact of the strike was far from clear: The well soon went dry, and the drilling techniques Drake pioneered produced just 2,000 barrels of oil in the United States in that first year. But by 1900, production had reached 60 million barrels annually as world markets replaced wood and whale oil with petroleum and coal as the fuels of choice. For some, the transition was profoundly destabilizing. Industrial whaling, once a linchpin of the coastal economy, faded
away as whale oil could not compete with petroleum-derived kerosene. Towns shrank and cities grew as gasoline-powered automobiles vastly expanded the possibilities of personal mobility. The American economy as we know it was built on this newfound and disruptive mastery of nonrenewable energy.
Today the downsides of this dependency are clear. A century and a half of burning fossil fuels has released 360 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air and shifted the global climate. Reliance on imported petroleum also threatens America’s economy and national security. These challenges could soon trigger another radical transition, this time toward renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal. Much as improved drilling and refining techniques caused the cost of oil to plummet in the 19th century, new technologies could make renewable fuels cheap and ubiquitous. And once again, an energy transition could prove hugely disruptive, creating whole new categories of jobs while making old ones obsolete.
Major economic and institutional obstacles stand in the path of a green-energy revolution, however. Federal subsidies provide enormous support to entrenched energy sources. In 2009, governments around the world doled out $312 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry while giving just $57 billion to renewable energy. And in a grim economic climate—the unemployment rate in the United States stands at 16 percent, including those not actively looking for jobs or underemployed—there is a natural tendency to cling to the jobs and businesses that exist right now. Judging from recent polls and election results, many Americans regard renewable energy as an uncertain bet at best, and at worst as a costly, government-directed folly.
Many energy experts, including the panelists at our recent town hall meeting, have the opposite perspective, seeing resistance to renewables as the folly.
The green-energy sector in the United States is growing at twice the rate of the economy at large. Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a coauthor of a recent report quantifying the green economy, notes that Europe and China are investing heavily in solar, wind, and other renewables, anticipating a long-term payoff. Meanwhile, the United States is lagging behind. “We’ve underinvested for a long time in energy innovation,” Muro says. “We need to take care of the technology pipeline.”
To do that, the optimists—Muro would call them realists—will have to do better at trumpeting the upside. The naysayers who mocked Drake’s Folly soon found themselves enjoying an unimaginable procession of industrial advances. One day, historians might look back on the current tough climate and see it as prelude to an era of clean prosperity: the renewable energy age. —Eric A. Powell
Last April in Washington, D.C., with support from the National Science Foundation, DISCOVER and NBC News/Learn hosted a town hall exploring the economics of green energy and green jobs. The event was a partnership with the Weather Channel, the George Washington University, Planet Forward, and scienceforcitizens.net.
Conducted just a few miles from the Capitol building, where climate legislation such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act remains stalled, our town hall featured four panelists with diverse experience in low-carbon energy. Ken Zweibel is director of the George Washington University Solar Institute, a research facility focused on economic and policy issues related to solar technology. Timothy Juliani, director of corporate engagement at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, heads up that nonprofit’s Business Environmental Leadership Council. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green For All, a nonprofit that focuses on increasing job opportunities in green industries. Chris Busch is policy and program director for the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, environmental, and community groups working to spur investment in clean energy. Anne Thompson, chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News, moderated the event, which was held the same day the Japanese government raised the Fukushima reactor disaster to 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, fanning doubts about the future of nuclear power—currently the leading zero-carbon energy source.
A lot of people were warming up to the idea of nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels. In a recent discover interview, energy secretary Steven Chu suggested that a new generation of miniature reactors could jump-start the nuclear industry in the United States. And then came the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. Was that a setback for a transition to a clean energy economy?