Why tech’s en­ergy needs an al­ter­na­tive

State­side by Chris Smith

Australian T3 - - CONTENTS - Chriss mith

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

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