Aaron Skirboll has a great article on Alternet that details the history of renewable energy policy and why we are unable to move away from fossil fuel. Skirboll’s article details how President Carter encouraged conservation and a move towards energy independence by, among other things, increasing solar funding from $75,000 in 1970 to $261 million in 1977. Other countries also realized the necessity of alternative sources of energy and in 1977, Saudi Arabia declared it was building the world’s largest solar heating system
Unfortunately, all of this support for renewable energy came to a rapid halt as soon as Reagan was elected. Reagon not only removed the solar panels from the White House, he gutted funding for solar development and showed his interest in energy policy by first selecting a former president of Coca-Cola and then a former dentist as his Secretary of Energy. Reagan also backed investment in billions of dollars in synthetic fuel, a dirty alternative to gasoline, which is in and of itself not very clean. Yet, despite all the funding, synthetic fuels were never brought to market and the renewable energy sector was left to fend for itself.
In the meantime, support for fossil fuels, an already developed technology, continues to this day. This means that instead of investing in new technology and a new energy future, at this point, taxpayers are basically just subsidizing oil company profits. Unlike renewables, fossil fuels have enjoyed strong federal support from the beginning. A recent report traced the history of federal funding for fossil fuels versus alternative energies and found that in inflation-adjusted dollars, over the first 15 years of subsidy life, nuclear received an average of $3.3 billion, oil and averaged $1.8 billon and renewables averaged less than $0.4 billion.
In other words, renewables received less than one-quarter of the support oil and gas received and less than one-eighth the support nuclear received during the early years of its development when continued investment can make a big difference. Yet, even with the disparity of support, more of our energy now comes from renewables than nuclear. Can you imagine how much energy renewables would be able to produce if they were fully funded?
And, as Congress debates whether or not to continue support for renewables, it’s important to remember that on average, as the report points out, annual energy subsidies for oil and gas are $4.86 billion, $3.50 billion for nuclear and just $0.37 billion for renewables. In other words, as Congress fights over the small renewable subsidy, oil and gas receives thirteen times the support that renewables do. As we pointed out earlier this week, it’s not that renewable energy as a technology cannot meet our energy demand, it is our lack of political will and support that is preventing us from transitioning to clean energy.
Skirboll’s article also points out the unpopularity of Carter’s message of how the U.S. is a wasteful country that wastes more energy that it produces and his focus on the need for conservation. Decades later, conservation is still a tough message to sell, even though the easiest way to decrease energy demand is to decrease consumption. The fact is that we need to both transition to clean energy AND use less energy overall. Small lifestyle changes, like turning off lights in empty rooms and not over-air conditioning buildings, can add up to big savings. Otherwise, the shift to clean energy means we just change the energy source we are wasting, not that we are actually transitioning to a clean economy future.