What an Energy Revolution Doesn't Look Like

Over the last five years, not all that much has changed in the American energy picture. 
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Fossil fuel extraction in the Canadian arctic (Reuters)

When I started writing about energy in 2007, it seemed like a revolution was on the way! Concern about climate change seemed to be growing and the cost of wind and solar power were declining. 

Fast forward six years, and no revolution has come. Instead, the US energy system looks remarkably like it did in 2008. Overall energy usage has declined a bit—thanks, prolonged economic downturn!— but the energy services we get have actually declined more. That is to say, the efficiency of the system has gone down. 

Notably: We're burning some natural gas instead of some coal for generating electricity, solar and wind have grown a bit, and petroleum use has fallen a smidge. (Here’s a larger version of the chart below.)

The growth in lower carbon energy sources should be lauded, but Al Gore gave a speech in 2008 in which he called for 100 percent renewable energy in a decade: "Gore said that one of Obama's first acts as US president should be to demand a move to 100 percent renewable energy within 10 years," wrote the Guardian at the time.

Even if we fell short of that goal, I thought at the time, surely we'd see radical changes in carbon-neutral fuels from synthetic biology. That's what Craig Venter, among others, claimed would happen. Treehugger summarized this 2008-vintage thinking:

According to Venter, large, bacteria-processing fermenters, similar to those used to make beer and wine, would replace traditional refineries. He expects the first generation of his engineered bacteria to be commercially available within the next year or two years. He made it a point to stress that he and his colleagues were thinking "in terms of years, not decades."

Instead, we have the chart above and the chart below: a diptych of relative stasis, not transformation.

With United States politics the way they are, we're just not experiencing the kind of fast energy transition that Germans see happening all around them each and every day . "The share of renewable electricity in Germany rose from 6 percent to nearly 25 percent in only ten years," we read. "On sunny and windy days, solar panels and wind turbines now increasingly supply up to half the country’s electricity demand, which no one expected just a few years ago."

Instead, the American energy system — led by natural gas, wind, and solar — is undergoing the sort of slow, laborious decarbonization that analysts like Vaclav Smil have predicted: "The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking." At least in the United States.

(Here’s a larger version of this 2008 chart, too.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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