More and more American colleges and universities are offering degree programs in solar and wind energy technology as a response to the popularity of solar and wind energy among millennials and Gen-Z’ers, and a push by the proclivities of many faculty members to go green.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Education and Training Programs page lists 171 programs around the country. The Department of Education’s page on Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy lists 125 colleges or universities offering programs.
Indeed, solar and wind are hailed as the future for our world, our saviors from catastrophic global warming. But are they?
Maybe as an outsider with an advanced degree in environmental science, specializing in climate science, I can bring a helpful perspective to the question.
Wind farms were a familiar sight for me as they were an integral part of the landscape near my hometown in southern India. The general assumption was that these windmills would generate a significant amount of electricity to aid the energy sector that was struggling to meet a soaring demand for electricity.
However, the wind farms turned out to be a burden, not a boon. They generated unreliable and expensive electricity that was available only during the windy months of the year. This is true with wind farms worldwide, which are also infamous for killing millions of birds and bats every year.
Much like wind, solar also has many limitations. It harnesses light energy only during daylight hours, subject to cloud cover and other weather conditions. Solar and wind both need a battery backup, and despite the falling costs of installation, the technology is far from competing with conventional energy sources like coal.
Today, solar and wind together constitute only 0.8 percent of global energy. That is an insignificant statistic given the energy demands of our industrialized world. In contrast, most of the world’s energy comes from conventional sources like coal, hydro, nuclear, petroleum, and natural gas.
The U.S. energy sector is primarily driven by fossil fuel-based energy sources like coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels, along with nuclear, constitute more than 87 percent of the total energy produced in the country. Heavily subsidized wind and solar together contribute less than 3 percent energy in the U.S.
The case is similar around the world. In Russia, coal, natural gas, and nuclear produce 80 percent of the energy. In China and India, the majority of the energy comes from coal. France and Canada are both heavily reliant on nuclear and hydroelectric plants.
This winter, both wind and solar failed miserably due to their inherent inefficiency —incapable of generating electricity in cold and dark winters. Nuclear and coal-powered energy literally saved millions in China, the United Kingdom, and Canada from freezing to death. In India, record coal production helped the country achieve surplus energy (2017) for the first time in its history.
To put it simply, wind and solar make no significant contribution to global energy production, and they have never done so.
Even if all the member nations of the Paris climate agreement (from which President Trump has withdrawn the U.S.) install wind and solar as per their individual commitments, solar and wind will produce less than 4 percent of global energy in the year 2040.
And it is not just the percentage of energy produced but also the cost that matters. The International Energy Agency forecasts that renewables will still be the most expensive energy source everywhere in 2040.
Wind and solar will never provide the energy we need. As it becomes increasingly clear that they cannot compete economically with traditional fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro, citizens will, at last, lose patience with wasting billions of dollars on subsidies and those industries will ultimately fail.
That will be bad news for people who have invested their college time and tuition preparing for them. Though they might start their careers there, it’s unlikely they can continue for long.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, lives in Coimbatore, India.