James Neal

"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

When Thomas Edison said those words to his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, shortly before his death in 1931, he was speaking prophetically of our need to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.

Now, almost nine decades after his death, there is some encouraging news — we're slowly and begrudgingly starting to heed his advice.

According to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2019 report, global renewable energy capacity quadrupled over the last decade. Solar power saw the greatest growth, increasing to 26 times its capacity in 2009. If you include hydroelectric power, renewables accounted for more than 26 percent of global power usage in 2018 — some sources put that percentage at as much as a third.

Growth in renewable energy sources is happening because of the universal motivation for human endeavor: there's money to be made in it. Global investment in renewables since 2009 was $2.6 trillion, with about half that invested into solar power, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Almost two-thirds of all new power generation developed in 2018 was from renewables.

That's good news. And, there are some notable examples of countries leading the way in renewable energy development.

Scotland now produces enough wind energy to power twice as many homes as it has, leaving plenty to share with northern England. The Scots hope to supply all their energy from renewables by next summer, and are a major player in Britain's goal of eliminating coal power by 2025.

Closer to home, the Lone Star State in July produced, for the first time, more of its energy from wind than from coal — though wind still only accounts for 22% of Texas power. And, here in Oklahoma, we should take some pride in having the second-greatest installed wind power capacity in the nation.

But, the news isn't all good on the renewable energy front.

Here in the U.S., we are lagging behind our peer industrialized nations in transitioning to renewable energy, and, according to IRENA, the fastest growth in renewables is in emerging and developing economies.

Wind power in the U.S. accounts for just 6.6% of energy production, and about 80% of our power still comes from fossil fuels, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Over the last decade, China has led the world in renewable energy investments. The Chinese invested about $758 billion over that period, according to a 2019 UN Environment Programme report. The second-greatest investor? Not us either. Europe, as a whole, invested $698 billion since 2009.

The United States wasn't even a close third. At $356 billion, our investment was less than half our Chinese counterparts. Japan, which uses less than a fourth of our energy consumption, invested $202 billion over the same period into renewables.

Why should we care about falling so far behind in renewable power production, research and investment?

I've written exhaustively in this column about the environmental crisis facing humanity. I'll forgo rehashing all that. Suffice it to say, if you care about your kids having a future, or care in the least about God's creation, renewable energy development is essential.

But, aside from having a habitable planet on which to live in a generation or two, why should we care about renewable energy?

In the words of IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin: “Countries taking full advantage of their renewables potential will benefit from a host of socioeconomic benefits in addition to decarbonising their economies.”

Translation: There's money to be made in transitioning the world economy to renewable energy, and we're missing out on it.

What Edison foresaw in 1931, and countries such as Scotland are realizing today, is the transition to renewables is the next great turning point in both social and economic development.

This is by no means the first such turning point for the United States. Over the last 250 years, we have made and remade our society and economy through the industrial revolution, bringing electricity into the home and industry, development of the automobile, aviation and space exploration and the computer age.

In each of these eras of incredible change, America was a major player, if not the outright global leader, because we had the vision to see both opportunity and the means to harness it. Our nation prospered because of our ability and willingness to adapt to and capitalize on those new opportunities.

Nations that failed or were unable to lead in those eras of innovation — well, they fell from prominence. And that, right now, is our course.

We need to adopt renewables on a grand scale because the health of our planet demands it. But, if you need more tangible motivation, follow Edison's advice and put your money on the future. In the process, you may just unwittingly improve the future.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for James? Send an email to jneal@enidnews.com.

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