End Life Support for the Fossil Fuels Industry

By George Harvey

An opinion piece calling on the US to end support for what it calls “Big Wind” has been circulating. This begs the question what the term “Big Wind” means.

We might look at a Wikipedia article, “List of largest companies by revenue,” to see what is there. Two of its 63 entries, GE and Siemens, have subsidiaries making wind turbines. Nevertheless, while these companies have incomes totaling $247 billion, windpower is only a minor part of each.

In the same list, however, we find at least 22 companies that would benefit from eliminating windpower, all producers of oil and gas. Their combined annual incomes total well over $4 trillion. They represent only the tip of the fossil fuels iceberg. Coal mining companies, for example, are not among them. Neither are the power generators that burn coal or gas to make electricity. The total fossil fuels income is much larger than just $4 trillion.

The fossil fuels industry is also getting its own life support from governments, and that is a huge multiple of what is given to renewable power. The $525 of direct annual subsidies given worldwide constitutes a problem so great that the United Nations has asked all countries to stop providing it. Including indirect subsidies, the total has been estimated at up to $1.9 trillion.

That is not the end of the problem. The fossil fuels companies neither clean up nor pay for most of their environmental damage. The World Wildlife Fund says climate change is the greatest threat to species of higher plants and animals, half of which may disappear by the end of the century.

There are also immediate human health problems, costing innocent citizens $120 billion each year in the US alone, perhaps well over $1 trillion worldwide. Also, the World Health Organization has released the shocking statistic that over 7,000,000 people are killed each year by air pollution, to which fossil fuels make the greatest contribution.

Such companies as General Motors, Unilever, Morgan Stanley and a host of others have formally asked governments worldwide to reduce carbon emissions. And the US military says climate change is one of the greatest threats to the security of the country.

The International Energy Agency has estimated the cost of switching to renewable energy to mitigate climate change by 2050 using currently feasible technologies. The figure, $44 trillion, might sound like an impossible figure, but the same report says that by spending it, we can reduce our energy expenses by $115 trillion in the same period, for net savings of $71 trillion. The costly switch to renewable power will leave us with more money in our pockets.

The problem is that the switch reduces the income for traditional power systems, mostly fossil fuels, by over $3 trillion dollars per year. They want that money. Perhaps the fact that they have got for decades means they think they have some right to it. But everyone involved should remember one thing: The obscene profits of dirty fossil fuels companies are paid for by ordinary folk with ordinary incomes.

And now we return to wind power. In 2013, the total amount of electrical power provided by US windpower exceeded that of hydro for the first time. It is growing rapidly, and for good reason. According to the US Department of Energy, the average cost of power from wind in long-term contracts signed in 2013 was 2.5¢ per kWh. That makes it by far the least expensive power source we have. And that, in turn, makes windpower currently the biggest threat to the continued profits of the fossil fuels industry.

Since the fossil fuels companies are under attack on grounds of environmental damage, climate change, cost, and national security, it is natural that they would like us to believe their products are necessary to our continued happiness. And so their supporters attack windpower and solar power.

Every power plant goes offline sometimes, but the cost of backup for wind and solar is a small fraction of that for huge traditional power plants. Every power source has environmental impacts, but that of windpower is miniscule compared to coal and gas. Every power system might be studied for health costs, but those of fossil fuels are unquestionably a major international problem. Now, windpower has a strong competitive edge, because its costs are falling below those of fossil fuels.

What is “Big Wind?” It is a term used as a smokescreen to keep us dependent on fossil fuels.

Copyright © George Harvey, 2014

One Response to “End Life Support for the Fossil Fuels Industry”

  1. Tim Holcomb Says:

    Knockout argument, George.

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