Featured Image: Nesjavellir Power Station
Photo in Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons
Technological progress in energy production and delivery has paved the way for countless innovations reliant on power. Most every product enjoyed in society today either directly or indirectly relies on energy in the supply chain. The ability to use energy to quickly and effectively extract fossil fuels, which drives the production of even more energy and powers machines we enjoy daily, highlights both its complexity and necessity. This begs a critical question:
Is our consumption sustainable? The quick answer is an unequivocal and resounding no. The long answer is multi-faceted, and deserves more attention than it gets, particularly within the United States. This is a rather complicated subject, so I will keep my argument to three key points:
- Current energy consumption is unsustainable, given its sources
- Current alternatives should be reevaluated for safety
- Our energy future should be safe, green, equitable, and exceed UN minimums
Current metrics note a worrisome and obstinate continued reliance on fossil fuels to meet energy needs across the world. In the United States, for example, the EIA reports that over 63% of energy was produced by fossil fuel means in 2018. The trend is marginally better elsewhere, with Germany relying on fossil fuels as around 48% of its total production in 2017. Germany has a rather significant dependence on nuclear energy, with a production value of 13.1% in 2017. France, meanwhile, is not overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels. Rather, nuclear energy accounted for around 76% of its total production in 2015, according to the EIA.
Fossil fuels are, as is now common knowledge, finite; they will run out eventually, regardless of their climate implications. Of course, the other side of the coin does not cease to exist when it is ignored; the climate implications of continued fossil fuel usage are very real. It is also common knowledge that the burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and that doing so drives climate change. As temperature averages rise and sea levels rise (due to increased ice melt at the poles), a whole host of climate-related catastrophes are possible.
The climate-related catastrophes are not the point of this discussion, but at the very least it is worth understanding that they can be a direct result of historical and current fossil fuel burning.
As finite and as dangerous fossil fuels are, it is more than reasonable to declare that they do not represent adequate resources for producing energy moving forward. Although it has become such, this idea should not be subject to partisan bickering. As to climate change, an overwhelming majority of scientists concur that the climate is warming and that human activities—including the burning of fossil fuels—are likely the cause. Even some of the major fuel companies, such as BP Global, ExxonMobil, and Shell Global (to name three) have acknowledged the future of energy is not in fossil fuels. While companies like these have made billions off of and still profit off of the sale of fossil fuels, even their acknowledgement of this is telling and warrants a discussion of alternatives.
Current alternatives to fossil fuels as energy sources include (but are not exclusive to) solar power, wind power, geothermal power, hydroelectric power, and nuclear power. All of these sources represent sources with minimal carbon emissions, and almost all of them are sustainable and safe. The less safe outlier among them, and, unfortunately, among the most widespread after fossil fuel, is nuclear.
Nuclear power, a common alternative (see: France) is incredibly powerful and incredibly clean. Extraordinary amounts of energy can be produced with minimal emissions, as controlled fission reactions are able to adequately generate enough steam to turn a turbine without any other byproducts—except for spent fuel.
The issue of what to do about spent nuclear fuel, that is, fuel rods no longer adequate to sustain the reactor’s operations but yet still very radioactive, raises serious questions about the safety of the continued usage of nuclear energy. Spent fuel collects and will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time. This raises questions about how to safely and securely keep them away from populations as well as out of the hands of malign interests. In the United States, the Yucca Mountain facility, borne out of the need for long-term storage of spent fuel, was still not operational as of May 1st of this year. Without safety and security assurances that a place like Yucca Mountain may be able to provide, spent nuclear fuel remains the radioactive elephant in the room in the larger energy conversation.
Safety issues associated with nuclear waste are but one example of the dangers of nuclear energy. In October of 2014, I penned an op-ed in The Brandeis Hoot about these dangers, particularly given the continuing radioactive carnage that defines post-meltdown Chernobyl and Fukushima. I highly recommend giving that a read.
Given these safety concerns, it is necessary that energy policy for the future be without fossil fuels and nuclear energy. This is an undertaking already underway in Europe, namely in Germany and France: complex states with significant energy needs that have been planning a phase-out of nuclear energy for several years. An (albeit small) model to look at would be the Iceland, which according to its main energy company Landsvirkjun is powered almost exclusively by renewable sources: hydroelectric and geothermal energy. Iceland represents a small sample size and while its unique geography allows for it to enjoy relatively large amounts of geothermal energy, its success in bringing about a virtually fossil fuel-free energy sector must not be understated.
My point is this: it is through adopting models underway in Europe (like Germany’s nuclear and fossil fuel phaseout) that we can come closer to achieving what should be the ultimate goal in energy production: a 100% renewable system, similar to Iceland. The road there will not be easy. It will take many years and require extensive reform both here in the United States and abroad.
As difficult as such an undertaking may be, it also represents a boon for new jobs in infrastructure construction as well as in the maintenance and operation of renewable energy plants, whereas jobs in fossil fuels may run dry as soon as the finite fuels do. Infrastructure projects on such a grand scale can invigorate local and national economies. U.S. leadership on this is, furthermore, critical; an American endorsement of sweeping energy reform will lead the way for others to do so moving forward.
The potential of American leadership in this endeavor also would represent a significant step forward in acknowledging the ongoing climate crisis, a global issue that desperately requires currently absent American leadership.
In striving for this future of green energy, we must finally consider the implications in less-developed states. It was through fossil fuel production and consumption that the industrialized West was able to enjoy the technological progress it did in the last few hundred years. Now, less-developed states are also utilizing these fuels—which are cheap and easily available—to stimulate their own growth, with some amazing results. China’s economic development in the last 50 to 60 years has been nothing short of exceptional, with great thanks to its energy sector.
The use of fossil fuels to stimulate development is obviously important, and thus a measured approach when applying a global green policy revolution must be taken to acknowledge this fact and allow for developing states to enjoy benefits that the industrialized West has been enjoying for centuries. The Paris Climate Accord, a multi-lateral agreement signed by most every state except the U.S. and Syria makes accommodations for this, and it thus makes for a good model.
Where such a global green policy revolution differs is the vigor with which the policy should be applied. There is not much time left for us to correct the climate issues we have created, and therefore an aggressive pursuit of renewable energy should be a top priority. These policies should not only meet but also surpass the stipulations of the Paris Climate Accord as well as currently established UN climate goals, so that a sustainable future would not only be possible but an assurance.
We are already exhausting finite resources and pushing our climate to the brink. Luckily for us, safe alternatives are within reach, but aggressive action is needed in order to prevent further climate catastrophe and to promote an ethical, safe, equitable, and prosperous energy future.
 Dr Bruno Burger, “Power Generation in Germany – Assessment of 2017,” 2017, 11.
 U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “France – International – Analysis -,” n.d., https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=FRA.
 BP Global, “The Energy Transition | Sustainability | Home,” BP global, https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/sustainability/climate-change.html; ExxonMobil, “Climate Change,” ExxonMobil , https://corporate.exxonmobil.com:443/Energy-and-environment/Environmental-protection/Climate-change; Shell Global, “Adapting to Climate Change,” https://www.shell.com/sustainability/environment/climate-change/adapting-to-climate-change.html.
 The gravity of “very” cannot be understated; some of the halflives of radioactive elements within spent fuel can range thousands upon thousands of years.
 Ellen Knickmeyer, “Nevada Urges GOP to Drop New Push on Nuclear Waste Dump,” The Associated Press, May 1, 2019, https://apnews.com/b71e1c8d3c804d178c53d7328b817302.
 Annika Breidthardt, “German Government Wants Nuclear Exit by 2022 at Latest – Reuters,” May 29, 2011, https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-germany-nuclear/german-government-wants-nuclear-exit-by-2022-at-latest-idUKTRE74Q2P120110530; World Nuclear News, “French Energy Transition Bill Adopted – World Nuclear News,” July 23, 2015, http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-French-energy-transition-bill-adopted-2307155.html.