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Fossil fuels versus clean energy: the facts

Windmills in Hawaii. Photo [CC BY-SA 2.0] by Kahunapule Michael Johnson.

If you had been following the presidential election, chances are you have heard terms like “Green New Deal,” “fracking” and “clean energy.”

President-Elect Joe Biden supports the Green New Deal, a proposed congressional resolution calling for a reduction of fossil fuel use and a transition to clean energy. Biden argues that the Deal addresses human activity contributing to the planet’s warming and would provide sustainable, high-paying jobs in the clean energy sector.

President Donald Trump opposes the Green New Deal, arguing that it would kill millions of jobs, claiming that it would cost $100 trillion to implement and saying that its aims are unrealistic.

What are the facts about this issue, and what is the state of fossil fuels and clean energy in the United States?

These topics relate to the ever-growing debate around clean energy and fossil fuels. In 2019, fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas (fracking) and coal made up around 80% of the U.S’s energy production, while clean energy such as solar panels and wind turbines constituted around 17% of the U.S.’s energy production.

As of 2017, the fossil fuel industry supported 10.3 million jobs in the United States with an average salary of $93,343. In 2018, the United States became the largest producer of oil for the first time since 1973 moving over Russia and Saudi Arabia. The state of Texas has become one of the biggest beneficiaries, with major oil producers such as BP and ExxonMobil investing billions of dollars in the Permian Basin.

It’s estimated that the United States government subsidizes the fossil fuel industry around $20 billion annually and that the industry makes up around 8% of the U.S. GDP.

The advantages of fossil fuels are that they are a cheap, high-density source of energy and that they are easy to find. One ton of coal typically generates 2,460 kWh of electricity, and the average American family consumes 877 kWh per month.

Transporting and storing fossil fuels is also much easier than clean energy because fossil fuels are safe and stable. Today’s power lines and infrastructure are placed near fossil fuel and nuclear power plants which are near urban areas. Wind and solar farms are farther away from civilization in deserts and hills, meaning thousands of more miles of powerline would have to be built.

Inconsistent weather means that clean energy doesn’t meet the supply and demand of an electric grid compared to fossil fuels, of which companies can always buy more. The costs of purchasing large scale batteries to store clean energy are too high to appeal to any investors. A lithium-ion battery back costs $1000 per kilowatt-hour when an average fridge uses around 5 kilowatts per day.

Large trucks or underground pipes are usually used to transport fossil fuels, creating jobs for truck drivers and construction workers. Fossil fuels are also consistent and reliable because they don’t rely on the current weather conditions and are plentiful. It’s estimated that there are around 1.7 trillion barrels of crude oil reserves worldwide

The disadvantages of fossil fuels are that they emit carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. It’s estimated the global air temperatures near Earth’s surface have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. The warming of the Earth has contributed to rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, and some people have even gone as far as to say that climate change is an existential threat.

Another downside to fossil fuels is that they are non-renewable, meaning they are used faster than replenished. Furthermore, fossil fuels also create nitrogen which leads to smog, and surface mining used to extract coal has been known to release pollutants that drop into the waters.

As of 2017, jobs relating to renewable energy supported 806,000 jobs in the United States with an average salary of $78,911. It was estimated that the United States government in 2016 gave the clean energy industry $6.682 billion in subsidies. America produces almost four times as much renewable electricity than it did in 2010.

The renewable energy sector is expected to provide 30% of power demand by 2023 and account for 70% of the global electricity generation growth. A Gallup poll found that 6 in 10 U.S. adults “strongly favor” or “favor” policies that would reduce carbon emissions.

One advantage of renewable energy is that it won’t run out because it relies on the environment to produce energy. Another advantage is that it saves money over time because there is no payment to refuel, although the cost to install average-sized solar panels in the U.S. ranges from around $11,144 to $14,696 after solar tax credits.

Renewable energy also emits little to no greenhouse gases meaning that there is a smaller carbon footprint, ultimately being better for the environment.

The disadvantages of renewable energy are that it is difficult to store and costly because today’s batteries are unable to stably store renewable energy. The cost of storing renewable energy would be about 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, translating to $10,000 to $25,000 just to install the battery.

Renewable energy is also not always consistent and poses challenges in rural areas during winter with little sunlight or wind. It takes up huge amounts of space, taking over 40 hectares of panels to generate around 20 megawatts of energy.

These are the facts that policymakers and elected officials have to weigh when they plan for the future of American energy, and the outcome of the November presidential election will determine whether the United States forges ahead or stalls on its path to renewable energy.

“These are the most critical investments we can make for the long term health and vitality of both the American economy and the physical health and safety of the American people,” Biden said in July of his climate plan.

If President Trump was re-elected, his administration planned on continuing to cut regulations and allowing the expansion of fossil fuels.

“We’re here today to usher in a new American energy policy – one that unlocks millions and millions of jobs and trillions in wealth,” Trump said when unveiling his energy policy in 2017. “We will bring new opportunity to the heartland, new prosperity to our inner cities, and new infrastructure all across our nation. When it comes to the future of America’s energy needs, we will find it, we will dream it, and we will build it.”

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