Renewable energy has already won the battle against fossil fuels, despite the big subsidies for oil and gas. Renewable energy is cost-efficient when it’s compared to the cost of pollution. Also, renewable energy has been proven to be cost-effective when projects take advantage of partnerships and cooperative financing.
It is just a matter of time before the victory in this battle is shared with the majority of the world.
However, how soon this happens depends on how quickly the existing oil and gas energy generation culture changes. Culture has been defined as the learned and shared behavior of a community of interacting human beings. If culture is about learned and shared behavior, can we learn and share our way to a renewable energy future?
The oil and gas energy generation change is contingent on how governments consider culture when they implement effective renewable energy incentives and subsidies. The change also depends on how willing businesses are to evaluate and adapt their culture of renewable energy consumption.
The private sector, financing institutions and multilateral development agencies need to facilitate a culture shift in funding, developing and evaluating renewable energy projects. We must evaluate 11the culture in which we live and work and how the benefits of renewable energy influence that culture. Each of us must understand our history if we are going to change our reality in our lifetime and shape the future.
Overcoming Intimidation Created by Renewable Energy
The transition to renewable energy might seem intimidating – regardless of whether it is 20% by 2020 or 100% by 2060 – because it will require a culture shift. This may be why worldwide energy goals are like moving targets. They must adapt as the shift occurs, whether at the national level or within local companies.
One aspect of this intimidation might come from the notion that we’ve lived with fossil fuel energy so long that change is impossible. However, “so long” really is not that long in the context of human history.
It is only since the Industrial Revolution that fossil fuels have dominated our culture. Even then, we had hemp as biomass and oil, hydropower as dams, wind power as windmills and solar power as solar cooking. Before the Industrial Revolution facilitated migration from rural workplaces to urban manufacturing areas, we depended on decentralized ways of living and making a living.
Decentralization and the use of renewable energy is nothing new. Certainly, the amount of energy we consume can be correlated with the electrification of technology. But this does not necessarily mean our energy consumption needs to increase continuously.
With electrification, we increase our energy footprint in two ways: with the energy requirement to use products and the energy requirement of creating products. As we create more products, we still have to deal with the energy footprint of electronic waste. It makes sense that manufacturers are developing “smart” technology to optimize all aspects of product energy consumption.
Most of our ideas around energy consumption are not necessarily based on what we need to consume. Instead, they are based on what we want to consume for comfort, security, tradition – to reflect human progress, to satisfy ideas of development, to define wealth, to distinguish class and assert cultural identity.
Benefits from the Development of a Sharing Economy
Culturally, the truth is most of us in the Western Hemisphere are accustomed to the conveniences of having our own car, our own home, our own everything. However, these customs have changed and will continue to change. Innovative companies such as Uber are proof of those changes. We are also seeing examples from the development of a sharing economy.
So how can a sharing economy benefit from renewable energy? If we share both our energy consumption and our profits, we justify a shared investment in a renewable energy future. This investment can create the necessary capital for renewable energy projects.
How Do We Scale Out and Cooperate for a Renewable Energy Future?
For now, the only way to see an immediate return on investment from solar installation and a lower electricity bill is if the cost for energy consumption exceeds the cost of installation. Individually, this is a rare occurrence. More often, our energy consumption cost means that a solar installation is equal to electricity payment five to 30 years in advance.
But many of us wonder how we will pay our bills the next three months. Five years is simply too far forward to stretch our money.
There is a way to cooperatively create energy consumption clusters, which together can receive a return on investment sooner than in five years. That way, we not only share the installation costs, but also the financing and soft project costs.
This approach could further increase confidence in renewable energy investment, while helping individuals to understand their energy consumption. In turn, more of us would be willing to install energy-efficient products and give utilities the consumer energy demand information they need. That could lead to utilities adjusting fossil fuel costs for consumers who install solar panels that feed into centralized grids.
This consumer information is important because our existing electricity utilities and the culture of energy generation will not simply go away. The utility’s ultimate goal is to provide reliable and affordable electricity to everyone and that requires revenue and validated consumer demand data.
Reliability means meeting energy demands while avoiding power outages. But if we demand less energy, utilities earn less revenue. At the same time, a centralized grid structure, even if transitioning to renewable energy, still needs revenue to operate.
So where should this revenue come from? There are a range of policies and revenue-generating options. They include:
- Renewable energy permits or licenses for energy generators and consumers
- Rebates to customers who invest in energy storage, perhaps in the form of electric vehicles
- Increases in the rates utilities pay customers who sell renewable energy back to the grid
- Correlation of renewable energy rates with the cost of fossil fuel
- Taxes on existing fossil fuel generation or products made primarily from fossil fuels such as Styrofoam
- Private sector investment
- Air pollution fines
The mix of policy options chosen must avoid the risk of having too many people come off the grid. When that happens, the cost of electricity will increase for those who either cannot afford an off-grid system or who are not part of a cooperative renewable energy project.
The transition to renewable energy will cost us on multiple levels beyond the technological cost. There is also the cost of transitioning systems that depend on fossil fuels, including companies, business clusters, communities, transportation and water infrastructure.
About the Author
Dr. Ariana Marshall is a faculty member with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, American Public University. She is the Director for the Caribbean Sustainability Collective and focuses on culturally relevant sustainability and climate change adaptation. Ariana completed her doctorate in environmental science at FAMU.