Why tech’s energy needs an alternative
Stateside by Chris Smith
When President Obama took office, he identified clean, renewable energy as a key to restoring America’s post credit-crunch prosperity. It seemed like a perfect plan. The new earth-defence force would create millions of jobs and reignite the innovative spirit that dragged the US out of the depression of the 1920s. The new tech could be exported to the rest of the globe for great profit, tackle rampant climate change and – perhaps most importantly for Americans – curtail the United States’ reliance on foreign oil.
Progress, as is often the case with Obama’s initiatives, has been slow. Slower than an Coldplay ballad and investment is now actually falling. The US threw US$36 billion at the cause in 2013, but global leader China, hardly noted as an eco-paradise, spent US$54 billion.
Certainly, it’s not all bad news. The States is well on the way to hitting the target of ten per cent of energy output from renewable sources by 2015. Solar power may still account for less than one per cent of energy generated, but the cost of installing panels has dropped by 60 per cent and, as a result, 4.3 gigawatts of solar capacity was installed across the country in 2013 (a record).
Wind power is also on the rise. Texas, a state renowned for its oil and gas production, drew a record 10,296 megawatts into the state’s electricity grid from wind farms earlier this year – almost a third of power consumed at the time.
Apple and Google, founded as they were on utopian ideals, are enjoying the smell of their own renewable farts amidst all this. Tim Cook and co launched a “We are really green” PR offensive, while all four of the Cupertino crew’s American data centres are fuelled 100 per cent by renewables, with its 20MW solar installation in California the largest privately owned renewable energy source in the nation. Others have biofuel farms, cooling systems with water chilled by the night air and plenty of wind power. “There are some ideas we want every company to copy,” Apple says, wryly.
Google, too, is doing its bit, investing US$250 million in an initiative to lease solar panels to home owners. However, the really big news in making the energy that powers our tech is not wind, sun or unicorn-pulled rainbow generators. It’s fracking.
This is the controversial process of using hydraulic pressure to fracture rock to release gas and oil, and is where the real money is going. Little wonder – fracking promises to give the US the energy independence it has sought desperately throughout its existence.
By 2020, it will help the US overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer and be in a position to export energy, not import it. Fracking provides the same well-paying jobs and economic benefits as green energy, but far greater returns in terms of actual, y’know, energy.
Of course, we’ll have to despoil the planet a little more to extract and use it. Most of us would probably rather that than have the lights go out on our laptops, phones and homes. But let’s hope we don’t come to regret the missed opportunities to really expand renewables use during the Obama years. Because this new source of fossil fuels will also run out, eventually. Chris is a Limey journalist lost in Yank-land