With new data showing that over 500,000 clean energy jobs have been lost since the beginning of the pandemic, a look at how American energy has changed over the years can show how clean energy and the numerous jobs associated with it will come out on the other side.
It’s hard to image that 150 years ago Americans were hunting whales for oil to light homes. When Moby Dick was first published in the mid-1800s, whale oil demand was at its peak. It was the fifth-largest sector of the economy. Fifty years later, the industry was dead. Whale oil was fully displaced by petroleum thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of Edmund Drake.
At about the same time, coal was replacing wood in homes and businesses because coal is more energy dense and could be moved around easier. Coal’s role powering the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries is a core part of U.S. history, and many family histories too. Upon coming to America, my great grandfather mined coal in Pennsylvania to save up and buy farmland in Maryland.
Now coal’s peak also has passed. Estimates out earlier this month show the U.S. is on track to produce more electricity from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record. Market forces—specifically low-cost natural gas and renewables—are driving coal plant closures at an increasing rate.
The future of energy is clean energy. That’s what makes the moves by today’s oil industry so interesting.
Over the past month, in the midst of a pandemic, low oil prices, and a recession, Total and Royal Dutch Shell followed BP in unveiling ambitious plans to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The oil majors will cut their own emissions, cut emissions from the power they buy, and reduce the emissions intensity of the products they sell.
In fact, companies of all types continue to set aggressive emissions reductions goals. In the first three months of this year, more than 100 companies set targets, up from 53 in the same period in 2019. Power purchase agreements that let companies buy their own wind and solar power also have increased. More voluntary efforts should be encouraged to set up a race to the top for environmental performance.
We’re passing through a tipping point because the economics of clean energy are better than ever. Clean energy is a sound investment—no matter what the external factors are.