The United States must break away from its reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel sources—like oil, coal, and natural gas—have two key faults. First, their supply is finite. Secondly, when burned they have costly effects on our surroundings.
There is a perception that the protection of—and demand for—fossil fuels (especially oil) has an outsized influence on our government’s foreign policy, leading to armed conflict. There is a debate about how much oil, coal, and natural gas are available in the world, and how long their stocks will last. But all of them will be depleted at some point, until or unless we prioritize non-combustible sources like wind, solar, hydropower, tidal energy, and geothermal energy, which are healthier and are naturally replenished.
The dozen OPEC nations, that in total hold about 80% of the world’s oil supply, contain members who sponsor terrorist groups, and have generally become more unstable since the Arab Spring. Not a single member of OPEC had a Freedom House ranking above “partly free” for their domestic record on political rights and civil liberties. Eight of the 12 members were considered “not free”. Even when oil exploration is being performed in safer areas it is still dangerous and harmful to the environment as the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy attests.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration preliminary data for 2011  suggests that more than four-fifths of national energy consumption came from sources which cannot be replenished. Petroleum was the leader at 36%, followed by natural gas at 25%, and coal at 20%. Trailing far behind were renewables (all types) at 9% (nuclear was the remaining sector).
The 2012 election showed that there is little focus on the nation’s energy concerns by the major parties. In fact, with the dubious merits of so-called clean coal given an airing by both the Democrats and Republicans during the year, the concerns of citizens should be heightened. The U.S. needs a political movement to articulate a real energy policy that will increase funding for safer and healthier renewable energy technologies, and will institute them so that we can ratchet down the reliance on fossil fuels.
The politically well-connected coal industry is well aware that traditional combustion of their product makes for the dirtiest and highest rate of greenhouse emissions of any of the non-replenishing fossil fuels. The Clean Air Task Force’s “Toll from Coal” report estimates that tens of thousands of Americans’ lives are cut short each year due to greenhouse gases resulting in air pollution. The emissions contribute to climate change, smog, haze, and acid rain. The particulates increase the risk of asthma and other health issues which hurt the quality of life by increasing chronic conditions, hospital visits, and lost work productivity. Clean coal offers the potential to reduce—but not eliminate—the carbon dioxide emission when burning coal. Attempts to redistribute and sequester the emissions through gasification funnel them mostly into the ground instead of the air. If successful (a big “if”) this sequestration effort could house the emissions for many years, but will pass a large potential problem to future generations and will not reduce the dependency on fossil fuels.
In 2005, Congress made a small step toward addressing the huge demand for fossil fuels in automotive transportation by mandating that fuel refiners must blend in renewable sources (i.e. ethanol and biodiesel) at a minimum of 4% of the total end product. That percentage is supposed to grow along with the demand for gasoline. A real energy policy would make a more determined effort to reduce petroleum consumption through the promotion and funding of alternative energy sources to operate vehicles. The development of ethanol and bio-diesel fuels has the potential of offering much lower greenhouse emissions than gas. The production of a variety of batteries to fuel hybrid and electric cars can also dramatically reduce fossil fuels—although some battery types have toxins.
Natural gas has gained on petroleum because the U.S. has greater reserves of it, and it doesn’t require dependency on the many politically and culturally volatile areas of the world where oil production takes place. While energy independence is laudable, and natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, it should not be thought of as any more of a long-term solution than other non-renewables.
The main concern about renewables now is that no single source can replace fossil fuels at the capacities currently being used. The good news is that a combination of hydropower, wind, geothermal, and solar energy sources have proven themselves through small-scale efforts and a wide array of scientific studies. What is needed is the political leadership and courage to fund and implement them on a much wider scale.
Writing in National Journal in April, Coral Davenport related the significant obstacles that clean energy technologies have in front of them now. These include industries that have a vested interest in keeping the status quo in place, and consumers being reluctant to embrace changes that will undoubtedly have expensive upfront costs to implement. Davenport suggests that renewable energy sources are in a similar position to that of the internet in its early years development in the 1970s. We need to bring more research and funding to bear on increasing production capacity and thereby decreasing the costs of clean sources.
Outside of those in the environmental movement, citizens have tended to drag their feet on embracing clean energy. One major reason is the current higher expense of these technologies. With the tech revolution, consumers saw real advantages in acquiring smaller, more effective, and more mobile products such as computers, phones, televisions, and games. For the average citizen, who already receives energy from fossil fuels, the same “hook” that the personal tech revolution had isn’t as apparent. Davenport remarks that the key for renewable sources will be to find government patrons, as the internet did in the Department of Defense, to nurture the wider and fuller implementation and study of clean energy sources. Eventually, businesses can be expected to see a market for clean and renewable energy, and take over production and distribution. This can only be achieved with more government funding now and tax considerations for green entrepreneurship soon.
A growing number of Americans want to change the current low levels of civic involvement by increasing their participation in their communities, supporting hometown businesses, and using local knowledge and know-how to find and implement unique and innovative solutions to social problems and economic hardships. Solar energy in particular points to a decentralized and renewable energy source that allows individual homes or regional cooperative efforts to produce electricity that will be independent of other infrastructures.
Wind power capacity is growing in the United States. According to testing by the Department Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the central corridor of the nation (North Dakota to Texas) has such a potential to harness wind power that those states alone could generate enough power to provide sufficient electricity for the whole country. Wind turbines will be expensive to produce and install. Once they are in place, however, maintenance costs would be negligible and would be less expensive than the production costs associated with generating fossil fuels. If the NREL’s report is acted on there would be a tremendous economic benefit to the entire central region (e.g., landowners and new jobs) without the potential environmental damage that has come to communities where such activities as oil refining, fracking for natural gas, and coal production have taken place.
The fact that renewable energy sources at their current rate of development can’t currently solve all our energy problems is no reason to relent on prioritizing their cultivation. Every technological and cultural change our society has gone through has involved uncertainty. Moving to a system of renewable energy sources accomplishes the twin goals of effective stewardship of our environment and providing ready sources of energy that are more efficient and can be replenished naturally.