Peter Thiel, Facebook investor and Donald Trump supporter, is by all accounts a terrible person. He did, however, come up with one classic line about the disappointments of modern technology: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” OK, now it’s 280, but who’s counting?
The point of his quip was that while we’ve found ever more clever ways of pushing around bits of information, we are still living in a material world – and our command of that material world has advanced much less than most people expected a few decades ago. Where are the technologies transforming the way we deal with physical reality?
Well, there is one area of physical technology, renewable energy, in which we really are seeing that kind of progress – progress that can both change the world and save it. Unfortunately, the people Thiel supports are trying to stop that progress from happening.
Not that long ago, calls for a move to wind and solar power were widely perceived as impractical if not hippie-dippy silly. Some of that contempt lingers; my sense is that many politicians and some businesspeople still think of renewable energy as marginal, still imagine that real men burn stuff and serious people focus on good old-fashioned fossil fuels.
But the truth is nearly the opposite, certainly when it comes to electricity generation. Believers in the primacy of fossil fuels, coal in particular, are now technological dead-enders; they, not foolish leftists, are our modern Luddites. Unfortunately, they can still do a lot of damage.
About the technology: As recently as 2010, it still consistently cost more to generate electricity from sun and wind than from fossil fuels. But that gap has already been eliminated, and this is just the beginning. Widespread use of renewable energy is still a new thing, which means that even without major technological breakthroughs we can expect to see big further cost reductions as industries move “down the learning curve” – that is, find better and cheaper ways to operate as they accumulate experience.
Recently David Roberts at Vox.com offered a very good example: wind turbines. Windmills have been around for more than 1,000 years, and they’ve been used to generate electricity since the late 19th century. But making turbines really efficient requires making them very big and tall – tall enough to exploit the faster, steadier winds that blow at higher altitudes.
And that’s what businesses are learning to do, via a series of incremental improvements – better design, better materials, better locations (offshore is where it’s at). So what we’ll be seeing in a few years will be 850-foot turbines that totally outcompete fossil fuels on cost.
To paraphrase the science-fiction writer William Gibson, the renewable energy future is already pretty much here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.
True, there are issues of intermittency remaining – the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine – although batteries and other energy storage technologies are also making rapid progress. There are also some energy uses, especially transportation, where fossil fuels retain a significant advantage in cost and convenience. And exactly how we’re going to have carbon-neutral air travel is still, well, up in the air.
But there is no longer any reason to believe that it would be hard to drastically “decarbonize” the economy. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that doing so would impose any significant economic cost. The realistic debate is about how hard it will be to get from 80 to 100 percent decarbonization.
For now, however, the problem isn’t technology – it’s politics.
The fossil fuel sector may represent a technological dead end, but it still has a lot of money and power. Lately it has been putting almost all of that money and power behind Republicans. For example, in the 2016 election cycle the coal mining industry gave 97 percent (!) of its contributions to GOP candidates.
What the industry got in return for that money wasn’t just a president who talks nonsense about bringing back coal jobs and an administration that rejects the science of climate change. It got an Environmental Protection Agency head who’s trying to suppress evidence on the damage pollution causes, and a secretary of energy who tried, unsuccessfully so far, to force natural gas and renewables to subsidize coal and nuclear plants.
In the long run, these tactics probably won’t stop the transition to renewable energy, and even the villains of this story probably realize that. Their goal is, instead, to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.
Unfortunately, this really is a case of “in the long run we are all dead.” Every year that we delay, the clean-energy transition will sicken or kill thousands while increasing the risk of climate catastrophe.
The point is that Trump and company aren’t just trying to move us backward on social issues; they’re also trying to block technological progress. And the price of their obstructionism will be high.