If you listen only to Chicken Little environmentalists, you might think America has done little to help save the planet for future generations.
On the contrary, the country has contributed quite a bit, experts say. In the last 20 years, U.S. engineers have either improved less sustainable technologies or helped revive previously impotent ones such as wind and solar, says Joel Balbien, managing director at GreenTech Consulting.
“Cheap and powerful silicon has led to enormous energy savings in other sectors of the economy, ranging from vehicles to aircraft and office buildings,” Balbien says.
In fact, America gets a lot more bang for its energy buck now than it did in 1991, and that includes clean fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol blends that “extend fossil fuels and reduce emissions,” said Joey Shepp, sustainable programs director at Dominican University of California.
What that means is the planet can do more with less. It also buys scientists more time to identify and adopt more sustainable energy, as society continues to burn through finite amounts of decomposed dinosaurs (i.e. fossil fuels).
Although not as effective as coal or oil in terms of output, wind and solar have each made significant strides in recent years as well. “Wind energy is rapidly approaching wholesale grid parity,” Balbien says.
Because the wind blows more at night when electricity demand is low, however, it will still take smarter batteries before wind can be a viable energy alternative, he notes.
Speaking of batteries, both Shepp and Balbien are critical of the lack in power storage over the last 20 years — and that includes everything from short-distant electric cars to battery-draining iPhones.
“Storage technology for electric vehicles and the grid remain expensive and exhibit pitifully low energy and power densities relative to fossil fuels,” Balbien says. Until scientists crack that nut, wind energy in particular will suffer.
A potential bright spot — despite its recent bad publicity (cough, cough Solyndra) — comes from the sun, Balbien says. “Solar has in recent years experienced the steepest decline in installed price of any green energy technology,” thanks to lots of it, stiff competition, and better conversion efficiencies with declining system costs.
The problem, however, is that while America is really good at designing green technology, it’s slow to implement it. “The U.S. is very strong in basic and applied research and has a university infrastructure that is second to none, leading to the creation of ever expanding intellectual property and early commercialization through entrepreneurship,” Balbien says.
“But many of our green innovations meet their demise in the Valley of Death, weighed down by common ills impacting manufacturing and a failure by the federal government to level the playing field between green technologies and less sustainable incumbents with regulation.”
And competition overseas is adding to the challenges of bringing sustainable energy to market, Shepp adds. “Much of our innovation is getting brought to scale by China, particularly in solar energy and efficient vehicles.”
Last year alone, China invested $30 billion in government financing to solar companies, according to the Department of Energy, and up to 50 countries have adopted renewable electricity standards or some type of public financing for clean energy projects.
That’s why this month, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu urged congress to subsidize green technology. “To those in Washington who say we cannot or should not compete, I say: that’s not who we are,” Chu said in his best political doublespeak. “In America, when we fall behind, we don’t give up. We have the opportunity to lead the world in clean energy technologies and provide the foundation for our prosperity.”
And that’s what it really boils down to: subsidies. Currently the U.S. subsidizes big oil and coal, Shepp notes. So the sooner the country reallocates incentives to implement sustainable alternatives, the better.