Over the last century, global temperatures have climbed, sea levels have risen, and climate patterns have shifted – all largely due to the harmful CO2 emissions released by the burning of fossil fuels. Furthermore, these conventional energy sources, like oil, coal, and natural gas, have become increasingly unsustainable due to high cost and finite resources. As fossil fuels are depleted and climate change worsens, the need for renewable energy sources becomes more and more pressing. However, making such a drastic and rapid shift can prove to be difficult.
In the United States, the government has many different options for how it could promote renewable energy. Experts across the fields of biology, engineering, economics, and public policy have proposed various solutions and initiatives aimed at improving renewable energy adoption. These range from the enforcement of mandatory quotas to reliance on the free market do its job. Furthermore, these approaches vary in terms of efficacy and feasibility. This paper will describe and evaluate two major renewable energy adoption strategies – economic incentives and public attitude campaigns.Renewable energy refers to energy generated by harnessing naturally replenishing sources, like sunlight or tides.
Using these sources is much less environmentally damaging than fossil fuels, releasing fewer greenhouse gases and diversifying the energy supply. This energy is effectively everlasting, but limited in the amount that can be generated at a time. To that end, there are many types of renewable energy and sources, which are becoming increasingly efficient and economical as technology improves. The major types, in order of electricity generation, are hydropower, wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal5. These types each have their own benefits and costs, varying in requirements, scale, and public opinion.Hydropower is one such source of renewable energy that has environmental benefit and cost tradeoffs.
Hydropower harnesses the energy in moving water using large bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and oceans. It was the first source of renewable energy significantly adopted in the United States and still generates the most electricity, making up 7.4% of total U.S. electricity generation6 and 44% of U.S. renewable energy electricity generation. The primary manifestation of hydropower is through large hydroelectric dams – like the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington – which use the flowing water of a river to turn the blades of a turbine and generate electricity. In this way, dams generate clean energy, but the diversion of water can also cause negative ecology effects by obstructing fish migration and changing water temperature and conditions.
Furthermore, the construction of these dams can also produce harmful emissions and force relocations of communities. In this way, hydropower has largely positive environmental benefits that are offset by some drawbacks.Wind is the next largest source of renewable energy, with similar tradeoffs. Like with the water in dams, wind is harnessed through turbine blades that generate electricity. Like dams, it also generates clean emissions-free energy, though it does not require water or damage the larger landscape as much9. However, generating wind energy depends on the availability of wind and often requires large areas of land dominated by wind turbines, in the form of wind farms9. These wind farms can be seen as visually or aurally unappealing and may take up viable farmland. Wind energy has been touted as the fastest growing source of renewable energy with the most potential.
Biomass is the third largest source of renewable energy, encompassing many different types of biomass. This category refers to energy generated by the burning of organic plant and animal material, which releases the collected chemical energy as heat. This includes burning wood, agricultural crops, and various kinds of waste. Furthermore, this biomass can be burned directly or converted into biofuels or biogas first. Burning biomass is not emissions-free, but is considered carbon neutral – the process releases CO2 that is offset by the CO2 that was absorbed by the plants as they grew.
However, the production of plants for biomass energy has been criticized for taking up land and fertilizer resources that could have otherwise been used for food crops. In this way, biomass releases fewer emissions than fossil fuels, but also has drawbacks.Solar is another form of minimally environmentally damaging energy that has its own limitations. Solar energy refers to energy that is collected from the sun and converted into electricity through solar photovoltaic systems. Like with wind, this form of energy is emissions free but relies on the availability of its source and requires a relatively large surface area. It can also occasionally affect the environment through the toxic materials in the photovoltaic cells and the redirection of ground water needed for cooling turbines. However, these effects are still largely preferable to the emissions caused by fossil fuels.
Finally, geothermal energy harnesses the heat from within the earth. This primarily manifests in the form of geothermal power plants built on sites of geothermal reservoirs, like volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers. This source results in much fewer emissions than fossil fuels, but still emits low levels of air pollutants. Furthermore, this process requires access to geothermal sites, which are often protected as national parks. In this way, geothermal energy is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, but is limited and not completely clean.
Though these types each have different costs and benefits, these sources of renewable energy are still less damaging to the environment than fossil fuels. In the last century, there has been progress towards renewable energy adoption. In the 19th century, wood dominated energy consumption in the United States. Through the 20th century, fossil fuels, like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, rapidly took over the market – though hydroelectric renewable energy emerged as well. Now in the 21st century, other sources of renewable energy have also been developed, and their consumption has more than doubled – largely due to government interventions.
By 2017, renewable energy accounted for 11% of total U.S. energy consumption and 17% of U.S. electricity generation. There has been notable progress made, but still not enough, as climate change progresses. There is much debate over the most effective way for the government to further encourage renewable energy adoption.One of the main ways the U.S. government currently promotes renewable energy is through economic incentives. This economic manipulation comes in the form of fixed pricing or fixed quantity. This concept of fixed pricing adjusts the price or effective value of renewable energy investment to make it more appealing, primarily through subsidies and tax benefits.
Furthermore, these types of incentives already exist at a federal, state, and local level. These subsidies are comprised of various grants, loans, and rebates. The tax incentives encompass deductions and credits across a range of corporate, personal, property, and sales taxes. Subsidies were found to have a positive correlation with renewable energy electricity generation, while tax incentives had a negative correlation. Furthermore, other studies have found effects of tax incentives to be insignificant or limited by caps on eligible costs. In this way, fixed pricing incentives can be effective when deployed correctly.
Fixed quantity incentives seem to be equally or maybe more effective. These incentives require minimum quotas of renewable energy through policies like the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) and the Mandatory Green Power Option (MGPO). In this U.S., this concept of RPS dates back to 1983 and requires electricity providers to source a certain amount or percentage of renewable energy. MGPO is a more recent policy that requires these electricity providers to offer renewable energy as an option to their customers. Failure to comply would result in financial penalties. These are separate but closely related policies that both work to encourage the amount of renewable energy used in the United States.
There is currently no federal requirement, but a majority of states have adopted these types of policies. Past studies have found RPS to have a positive impact on wind capacity and overall development of renewable capacity. However, the positive effects of this policy may actually be due to potential sample self-selection and other confounding factors, like availability of renewable energy resources, political inclinations, and current environmental deterioration. A more recent study has actually found RPS to have a negative impact on renewable capacity investment when controlling for these contexts. On the other hand, MGPO has been found to have a more positive effect on renewable capacity investment regardless of context.
So, fixed quantity incentives are certainly capable of promoting renewable energy, though the strength and valence of the effect may be context dependent.In this way, economic incentives a key tool for governments to encourage renewable energy adoption. These price and quantity manipulations require funding and enforcement, and the effects vary based on incentive type and context. However, these incentives are feasible and do have the ability to produce significant changes in renewable energy adoption. This is a valuable tool with great potential, worthy of further research and refinement.
However, not all agree that this is the best approach; many critics have argued that these economic incentives are not sufficient to produce the necessary shift towards renewable energy. This view claims that a change in public attitude through education or campaigns will be crucial to producing substantial and long-term improvements. There is generally support for renewable energy technologies.
However, there are also many negative public attitudes – like that wind farms and solar panels are ugly. Furthermore, many do not see climate change as sufficiently urgent or do not fully understand the harmful effects of fossil fuels. In this way, though there is general support, there is still a lack of actual motivation and social acceptance. To that end, there are educational and awareness campaigns across the country, run by state and local governments, as well as private firms and NGOs. These programs are still relatively new and the effects have not yet been thoroughly documented. Nonetheless, it seems that the targeted social acceptance is important for achieving effective positive investment in renewable energy.
Furthermore, while these types of efforts may not be as effective as economic incentives in the short run, they are critical for renewable energy development in the long run. In this way, the power of public opinion is an important factor and potential target that should not be ignored. Both economic incentives and public attitude campaigns seem to be crucial and promising strategies to promoting renewable energy. However, these policies are still under-researched and underutilized, lacking full state and federal governmental support. Furthermore, they face the usual policy implementation impediments, like the allocation of funding, lack of bipartisan agreement, and inertia of the status quo. Further research on the efficacy of these policies will be necessary, especially for MGPO and educational programs. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see that there exist viable policies the U.S. government can use to accelerate the process of renewal energy adoption.