We live in a world dominated by risk. Corporations obsess over it; governments are ruled by it. Those in power make decisions based on the likelihood of unforeseen events—sudden conflict, popular uprisings, disasters. As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, we’re beginning to see a new pattern, a new landscape of threat, emerging from the wreckage of Fukushima, Macondo and Misrata. A series of unexpected events have overthrown governments and brought huge companies to the point of collapse. It’s time for the decision-makers to realize that dirty energy is no longer the safe bet. Renewable energy is safer, smarter and more resilient.
We are told that fossil fuels and nuclear energy are the only ways to meet the huge energy demands of our modern world. A recent United Nations report on renewables has helped to blow that myth out of the water. According to these experts, renewable energy is not only capable of replacing fossil fuels and nuclear; it is already on its way to doing so. The growth of this sector is the industry’s best-kept secret. The report shows that it dominates nuclear power globally by a ratio of six to one. Despite the massive subsidies given the nuclear industry, wind energy is already cost-competitive. Other renewables, such as solar, will reach cost parity in just three years.
It’s no surprise that the emergence of a new, infinite form of power should pose such a threat to the energy establishment. Unlike genes, viruses and vaccines, the power of the sun can’t be patented, nor can the air currents the sun generates to create energy in the form of wind. And here lies the dilemma. There’s too much free energy. It’s so plentiful that it can meet our needs several thousand times over. As Greenpeace’s energy scenario demonstrates, just 1.3 percent of viable renewable energy could power 21 percent of developed economy needs in the next decade.
You might wonder this: if our governments are sitting at the energy poker table with a full house in terms of renewables, why do they choose not to play their winning hand? There’s a hidden partner in this game, influencing their every move. Corporations, like casinos, are driven by short-term profit, not the long-term health of their customers. This isn’t just about greed; it’s enshrined in law. Even the most robust corporate social responsibility programs are still slaves to the bottom line. The benefits to the wider society, in this case the environment, can exist only if they profit shareholders.
Governments, like corporations, would do well to remember who their stakeholders are. Increasingly our political CEOs act in contravention of the public interest. Subsidies and tax breaks for nuclear and fossil fuels dwarf the support handed out to renewables. As they did for the banks during the financial crisis, governments offer a liability safety cushion to the nuclear industry. When there is money to be made, the profits go to private industry; when disaster happens, the spills and meltdowns are shouldered by the taxpayer.
There is a massive disconnect between what the world needs in terms of energy access, security and safety, and the cards we are dealt. Renewable energy not only offers the opportunity to restructure major grids and provide power to the masses. It can be decentralized, so that communities and citizens—among them the 2 billion people now without energy access—can govern their own energy needs. Thousands of small-scale renewable projects will leave our economies less vulnerable to shocks like sudden price hikes, explosions or the whims of dictators. The time has never been better for embracing an energy democracy.
And yet the race to exhaust our disappearing natural resources continues apace. Recent documents released by WikiLeaks show that the United States and Russia are squaring off for a battle of supremacy over oil reserves in the Arctic. The irony that climate change has opened up new oil resources, the exploitation of which will speed the process further, seems to be lost on our leaders. Once, Western explorers traveled to the Arctic to push the boundaries of the human spirit and endurance. Now, corporate mavericks follow the same path to lay waste a pristine environment for a few more years in the pink.
Governments need to stop gambling with our economies by propping up the status quo—and there are signs that it can happen. In Japan and Germany we are seeing an extraordinary policy shift. If the third- and fourth-biggest economies in the world can pursue a nuclear-free, renewable energy infrastructure, then there is not only hope that other leaders will follow suit but a model of how it can be done.
There are opportunities for everyone in this new renewable energy world, from shareholders to employees. Market size is expected to exceed $2 trillion in the next decade. The renewable industry already employs 2 million people worldwide; in the United States wind industry workers now outnumber coal miners. New energy policies will help boost this growth, but even in the face of government opposition or apathy, the market is predicted to expand significantly. There is a quiet revolution taking place, and it is gaining pace and proponents.
The future is clear. Investing in the renewable energy of the future is the safest bet we can make.