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Renewable Energy in America: We Don’t Need a Bridge

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The argument that America needs natural gas as a “bridge fuel” between dirty coal and clean renewable energy is persistent. The metaphor positions us on one riverbank, stranded in a world where generating power from carbon-heavy fossil fuels is all we know. Only across a wide river does a better riverbank lie, where someday Americans will be able to power their lives with clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind. We want to end our use of climate-damaging coal, but we can’t just jump to that clean energy future. The sole way to reach it, the argument goes, is to use natural gas until wind and solar energy are within reach.

In the past few years, proponents have used the “bridge fuel” argument to defend fracking, which can produce natural gas, in opinion pieces, radio interviews and reports. It was even mentioned in the Democratic presidential debate last month. In response, opponents have dismantled the argument’s scientific premise, explaining that even if we needed such a bridge, natural gas is not the solution because due to high rates of methane leakage, natural gas emits more global warming pollution over its life cycle than coal – see here, here and here. However, the bigger issue is not that the “natural gas as bridge fuel” argument is incorrect, but that it is a distraction.

Thanks to smart energy policies, advances in technology and high public support for clean energy development, we don’t need a bridge. There’s no wide river in the way of our progress, just a narrow stream. We already have access to a clean energy future. Clean and abundant renewable energy technologies are here that can keep our lights on and appliances running without threatening our environment and health.

Solar energy enjoyed a record-breaking year in 2015. Installed solar electric capacity in the United States now exceeds 27 gigawatts – enough to power 5.4 million homes. The industry is growing rapidly in large cities as well as rural areas. And on top of the progress we have already seen, so much more is possible. A recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study found that if we were to install solar panels on all available rooftops in the country, we could meet the annual electricity needs of more than 135 million homes.

American wind power is also growing rapidly. The country has now installed enough wind energy capacity to power 17.5 million homes. In 2015, Iowa generated over 31 percent of its electricity from the wind. Eleven other U.S. states generated at least 10 percent of their power from the wind. This year, the U.S. will finally begin to tap the vast wind energy potential that lies beyond our shores when the nation’s first offshore wind farm begins operations off the coast of Rhode Island. NREL has estimated that the U.S. is technically capable of installing 4.2 million megawatts of offshore wind energy capacity – about four times as much electricity as the nation currently consumes.

Every dollar spent on natural gas infrastructure to increase its use as a “bridge fuel” is a dollar that keeps us on our current riverbank, dependent on fuels that cause global warming. (And any “bridge” that offers no net gain for society while diverting investment from projects that do is ripe material for our next Highway Boondoggles report.) We want a future powered entirely by renewable energy that won’t set us back. That future is so close we don’t need a bridge; we just need to take a big step across the stream.