Using renewable energy to power our homes and cars has been a dream for decades. Actually, as you can see in the quote above, Thomas Edison was dreaming about renewable energy back in 1931. Despite all this enthusiasm for clean and renewable energy, however, it has taken awhile for renewable energy options like wind, solar, and biofuels to become major players in their respective energy sectors. This becomes quite clear when surfing through GE’s new data visualization, which I wrote about last week.
Taking a deeper dive into that interactive visualization illuminates what was holding renewable energy back and why it burst onto the scene in the past decade or so. (Apt that this comes from the most prominent company Edison founded.)
Economic Viability (i.e. Cost)
The earliest mentions of “renewable” are few and far between in GE’s annual reports visualization. In 1977, GE wrote about “coal and nuclear power being essential for the rest of this century and until the renewable technologies become economically viable.” In 1978, GE’s annual report included another statement much like that one, emphasizing that coal and nuclear would be needed to meet growing energy demands in the U.S. “through the transition to the time if and when such ‘renewable resources’ as solar, biomass and fusion technology become viable.”
Now, if we had better understood the health costs of oil and coal at that time (currently, coal costs us $500 billion a year, according to a Harvard Medical School study) and made coal companies internalize those costs in their operations, perhaps renewable energy would have been “economically viable” back in the 1970s and 1980s. However, we didn’t, and we still don’t have policies in place to make the price of coal more reflective of its true cost. So, the cold reality is that renewable energy couldn’t compete in the energy market during most of the 20th century.
How Things Change
With continual government and private sector investment in renewable energy technologies, several renewable energy options have become economically viable in the past few decades. Adding on to that, the public has become much more aware of the various health and safety costs of non-renewable energy options, and government policies that account for those extra costs have been enacted. That combination has resulted in wind energy, biomass, and solar energy becoming much more economically competitive in many locations around the U.S. and the world, especially in the 21st century.
Through the use of GE’s annual reports visualization, you can see how the factors above have changed the energy sector. In 2001, GE wrote, “we have extended our capability in renewable energy and we are entering the equipment production business.” In 2002, it wrote that it had become “a global leader in the most commercially feasible form of renewable energy” (from the page pictured above, discussing GE’s growing involvement in wind energy).
Interestingly, GE’s early references to renewable energy were linked to solar, biomass, and fusion, but it’s actually wind energy that became a truly competitive renewable energy option the fastest. Year after year, since then, wind has been a prominent part of GE’s references to renewable energy, and the company’s world-leading work in that field.
Since the early 2000s, other renewable energy options have grown enough, technology-wise and in the market, to become economically viable in many places. We’ll dive into those other GE developments later on in the week.