Our world is in flux. “All that is solid melts into air,” to cite Karl Marx’s perhaps most famous phrase. The climate is changing, and in order to contain that within human limits, our energy system is changing. That means not only using solar and wind to generate electricity instead of coal or natural gas, it means using that renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels in transportation, to heat buildings, and in manufacturing, construction and agriculture. It means using less energy to do everything we do.
This is the Energy Transition we hear so much about. That transition is not as far along as it needs to be, as UN officials, scientists and climate activists regularly and rightly tell us. But it is further along than most people think, and the better we understand that, the more we can do to influence the speed and shape of that change.
Our domestic coal industry is on its last legs, despite President Trump’s loud and lengthy support. The reason is simple and irreversible: It costs more to generate electricity from coal than from natural gas in this country, and solar and wind power are cheaper still in some parts of the US and most parts of the world – and will soon be cheapest everywhere.
The supposedly still mighty oil and gas industry is a shadow of its former self in industrial-economic terms, as well. It’s not only being attacked by environmentalists, it has lost favor on Wall Street. Over the last 10 years, energy shares on the S&P 500 have gained only 6% in total, while the full S&P 500 index is up more than 180%, Reuters calculates. As a result, oil and gas company shares now make up less than 5% of the index on a weighted basis, compared to over 15% in mid-2008.
Anybody who decided to divest from coal and oil equities in 2008 was amply rewarded financially for the moral gesture. The energy transition is a bandwagon we should all be on and helping to propel.
And don’t be fooled by the large number of pickups and small number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. Gasoline demand in this country is already falling. Both gasoline demand and the oil and gas industry need to shrink faster, but that will happen before long, too, as EVs catch on and renewables and batteries become cheaper than alternatives. That’s one of the tales from the transition I want to tell.
The transition isn’t only about energy, though. Not by a far cry. Getting rid of fossil fuels is an absolute necessity, but it doesn’t begin to encompass the broad social, economic and political change that I see coming. We humans are not only using too much energy, we’re using too much of almost everything. But even as we do, many people have too little of almost everything. That this cannot and will not continue is already evident in the unprecedented strains facing almost all our social systems, from health care and schools to families, conventional political parties, you name it.
The problems are many, good solutions are few, and they don’t come in one-size-fits-all. But don’t despair. What will mark the 21st Century – or at least the next few decades – will be bottom-up solutions to these deep problems. You and I have roles to play in shaping this transition that go way beyond showing up at the voting booth on election days. Midcoast Maine can be a seedbed for good, replicable ideas, just as well as New York or Beijing can. We can all create and tell tales from the transition. But there’s no time to waste.
More tales coming soon!