More Clean Energy Doesn’t Mean Less Dirty Energy

We like to assume that producing a new megawatt-hour of electricity from wind means we’ve eliminated a megawatt-hour of fossil-fuel produced electricity. But it doesn’t usually work that way, according to University of Oregon sociologist Richard York, and that’s why he believes it will take economic and political changes—not just cool new clean technology—to shift us away from our dependence on fossil fuels.

York makes that argument in a paper recently published in the journal Natural Climate Change. He says that while most countries are relying on technological advances, like wind and hydro power, to limit the use of fossil fuels, this approach ignores the “complexity of human behavior.” He says that the addition of such renewable energy technology is doing little to actually displace the use of fossil fuels.

solar wind displacement of fossil fuels, oregon study

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York’s conclusions are based on studying electricity use in 130 countries in the past 50 years. He found it took more than 10 units of electricity produced from non-fossil sources, such as nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, wind, biomass and solar, to displace a single unit of fossil fuel-generated electricity. Take nuclear power: It began growing into a significant source of power beginning in the mid-20th century, but world use of fossil fuels kept right on growing with it. He fears the same thing could happen with wind, solar and other green power sources.

“I’m not saying that, in principle, we can’t have displacement with these new technologies, but it is interesting that so far it has not happened,” York said in a statement. “One reason the results seem surprising is that we, as societies, tend to see demand as an exogenous thing that generates supply, but supply also generates demand. Generating electricity creates the potential to use that energy, so creating new energy technologies often leads to yet more energy consumption.”

York concludes that we need to not just be looking to technology for changes, but to think about the technology in a social context. He said society needs to discover what political and economic factors lead to true displacement of fossil fuels. “We need to be thinking about suppressing fossil fuel use rather than just coming up with alternatives alone,” he said.

Kristy Hessman is a writer and native Oregonian who currently resides in California. Before starting her own company, she worked as a reporter covering business and politics for daily newspapers and The Associated Press.