This weekend, Swarthmore will play host to a nationwide conference of students from colleges and universities from over 18 states interested in discussing tactics of an emerging movement to divest college endowments from extractive industries, namely coal, oil and gas. There are many perspectives to consider the decision to divest — perspectives that our students, faculty, administrators, and board members have been discussing for some time now. However, from a lens of science and technology I believe there is a great benefit to put pressure on extractive industries to change their business models, and to put pressure on our legislature to show less favoritism to dirty energy industries.
Although the President and many elected officials have been lauding the emergence of renewable energy industries in the past few years, oil, gas, and coal companies have been given few economic incentives to innovate, and are given loads of government subsidies as incentives to keep energy costs down. In 2011, fossil fuel industries received six times the subsidies than did all renewable energy industries combined. All In all, the American fossil fuel industries have received a total of $630 billion in government subsidies. Renewables have received only around $50 billion, almost all of which came after the 1970s.
These subsidies keep domestic prices low, but also don’t provide incentives for extractive industries to increase efficiency or make operations safer and cleaner. By and large, extractive industries have continued to use the same technologies for their drill rigs and mountaintop removal equipment as they have been using for decades. This equipment is often not efficient enough to utilize most of the resource being extracted — oil and gas rigs are often abandoned without extracting much of the oil and gas left in the well, and mountaintop removal is only able to extract a small fraction of a mountain’s coal. Furthermore, environmental disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have not swayed big oil companies to innovate and make the extraction process safer. Although there are some exceptions of this inertia in the fossil fuel industries (clean burning coal plants for instance), change has been slow, and often the result of government environmental policy.
On the other hand, renewable energy industries have been enormously successful in coming up with more efficient forms of energy production, despite receiving far less governmental support than the fossil fuel industries. Wind energy, which the government didn’t begin to subsidize until the 1980s, has become 90% more efficient in that time. Solar industries have grown enormously, creating panels for everything from large solar farms to residential rooftops.
Furthermore, breakthroughs in creating more efficient wind and solar energy are taking place at a startling rate. Last month, for instance, scientists at Lund University in Sweden discovered how semiconductors made from indium phosphide, called nanowires, can increase the efficiency of solar cells by 13.8%. If these nanowires can be incorporated into commercial solar panels, these would be a big boost to solar power companies seeking to increase output.
Another exciting new area of interest in the solar energy industry has been a new kind of solar cell, known as a “quantum dot solar cell.” Traditional solar cells generate energy by using energy from the sun to excite the electrons of a “bulk material,” such as silicon, or certain kinds of copper or cadmium. As the name suggests, these materials are comprised of relatively large atoms. The size of these atoms restricts the amount of electricity that can be generated — it is estimated that solar cells functioning like this can be at most 31% efficient in turning solar energy into energy we can use. Quantum dots, on the other hand can be much smaller than traditional “bulk material,” and are in fact easier to make than the traditionally used materials. The main drawback of quantum dots is that the materials required for their manufacturing are significantly more expensive, but these new solar cells promise to be worth the start-up costs.
Solar and wind may be the most talked about renewable energy sources, but others such as geothermal, tidal, and biofuel are also exciting sources of innovations. Recently commissioned projects in Europe, such as a biofuel-to-liquid plant in Northern Finland to create biofuels for export, and a Swedish project to harvest pyrolysis oil (also known as biocrude) from forest residues demonstrate the innovation taking place right now in a range of renewable energy industries.
The “renewable energy future” our politicians talk about is right on our doorstep, and we have the innovative power to make it a reality. However, to cross that threshold, we a technologically up to date infrastructure and a philosophy of ensuring our power sources are sustainable. As I have said, the scientific know-how needed for such a future is not wanting, but we are held back by dirty energy companies that have made an easy profit through lobbying for government subsidies and have little interest in changing their business model now.
If we are to become more efficient utilizing the energy sources available, carbon based or otherwise, we must find a way to move the fossil fuel energy producers of today. Public consensus is not enough — a Wall Street Journal and NBC 2011 poll showed that 74% of Americans support eliminating all tax credits for the oil and gas industries, yet there has been little serious considerations of such measures in our national government. The tactic of divestment offers a new way for us as college students to promote technical innovation in energy production — instituting a solution for our country that is sustainable and creating more opportunities for researchers to push the boundaries of efficiency and safety in energy production.