| By Elizabeth Bettis
Renewable energy has become a byword in the vocabulary of environmental activism, but the topic isn’t a simple one and there’s a lot to know – from the hard science to the politics that dominate the energy scene. That’s why IDEAS For Us and the Orlando Zero Hour chapter collaborated on a panel specifically to address renewable energy. Zero Hour is a youth organization focused on climate change activism, featuring inspired young leaders whose vision is a world where clean water, air, and public land will be accessible to everyone – in other words, they’re a perfect organization to tackle the energy crisis head-on, which is exactly what this panel does. Their discussion, moderated by students including Lauren Escarcha, features Florida Representative Anna Eskamani, ReThink Energy Florida Executive Director Kim Ross, UCF student government’s Sustainability & Innovation Coordinator Emma Roherig, and climate activist high school senior Vasakan Mahesan. Through their discussion, they address the main goals of renewable energy and how it will impact our world for the better, as well as what the average person can do to make reliance on sustainable energy a reality.
Why Go Renewable?
The first obvious question to ask on the topic of renewable energy is why we need it at all. Aren’t we getting along just fine on the current fossil fuel system? The answer is… definitely not. Innumerable damages to the public health can be traced straight back to the traditional fuel system. As Kim Ross notes, burning fossil fuels causes pollution and exacerbates climate change – both of which clearly means a lot to the status of public health. Fossil fuel combustion produces the carbon dioxide that fills our atmosphere, causing the climate-devastating greenhouse effect and global warming (1). The resultant rising sea levels threaten to destroy industries as basic as Florida fishing and tourism. Already the once-booming Everglades have fallen to the inexorable sea level advance, Vasakan Mahesan observes, and they’re just a foreshadowing of what could happen if we don’t take action now. Global warming is just one aspect of the fossil fuel fallout; fuel mining operations leave landscapes scarred and fill water sources with toxic elements that cause cancer, birth defects, brain damage, and more (2). Emma Roherig brings the situation a little closer to home by pointing out specific effects: asthma and certain types of cancer can be induced by fossil fuel pollution (3). Due to pollution-induced global warming, some foods can no longer grow, which loss has its own effect on diet and nutrition. Smaller-scale impacts like the pollution coming specifically from Florida Interstate 4 or the coal plant recently constructed near central Florida’s Avalon Park are enough to bring fossil fuel damage to bear on reality (4). For those living in wealthier communities or the prosperous areas of large cities, the effects of pollution can be difficult to see, but often the pollution from these wealthy areas ends up instead impacting low-income communities everywhere. Helpless and already suffering, these communities have no way to speak up for themselves and change the situation – yet their health is at serious risk.
So we’ve established that fossil fuel energy has issues – will renewable energy really make that much of a difference towards solving these problems? This time, the answer is definitely. Going renewable comes with a host of environmental and health benefits, including:
Why Renewable Isn’t the Norm
With all these amazing benefits to pursuing renewable energy, you’d think it would be ruling the world already. Actually, the case looks a little different: renewable energy accounts for only 2.3% of Florida’s electricity, far behind natural gas (61%), coal (almost 23%), and nuclear power (12%) (6). How can this possibly be the case? The answer comes down to the policies of large corporations and their focus on immediate profit. Representative Anna Eskamani says that one big excuse the legislature likes to use is comparison to energy policies in other countries. It’s easy for the legislature to insist that nothing Florida does can help since many nations will continue to be fossil fuel pollution hotbeds, but this is an irresponsible way of behavior. If every state and country chooses to use this excuse, renewable energy goals will never become a reality. Why does the legislature feel that it needs this excuse? Again, it’s all about the profit. Emma Roherig comments from her background at the University of Central Florida (UCF): the university won’t fund renewable energy projects because such investments don’t immediately pay off. Even though renewable energy would save money in the long run, temporary financial gain seems more important in the moment. UCF has also already invested in fossil fuel energy, so going renewable would mean starting all over. The same factors come into play for many other businesses and institutions which hesitate to try renewable energy. Mahesan points out that renewable energy does look more expensive, but ultimately fossil fuel energy comes at a far greater cost – just think for a moment about the expense necessary to repair the climate damage that fossil fuel use has caused thus far. Because of short-term thinking, Florida is festering in the fossil fuel backwater instead of standing forth as a leader in solar, wind, and water energy. Maybe it’s cheaper in the moment to exploit the earth; when the cost of exploitation comes back to bite, all the fossil fuels we’ve used will become thousands of times more expensive than renewable energy. We’re trading the future for the present, and it can’t go on forever.
Making Renewable Energy Mainstream
The transition from an energy economy focused on fossil fuels to one that revolves around renewable energy will not be easy, and this goal demands investment from everyone – including you. That said, the situation isn’t hopeless, and the panel has multiple ideas to facilitate the transfer to renewable energy. Kim Ross suggests involving people from vulnerable communities in the discussion – instead of wealthy districts making decisions that mire low-income areas in pollution, the people who suffer from pollution should get the opportunity to make their voices heard. Mahesan’s carbon tax solution would force companies to pay a tax on the carbon fuels they use, which would ultimately promote the use of renewable energy instead and also pay the American people back for any pollution incurred (5). The carbon tax, says Representative Eskamani, may be one of the only ways to incentivize corporations to go renewable. But ultimately, real change depends on voter decisions and support. The first thing to do is get to know your lawmakers so that you can hold them accountable. Find out which candidates are accepting campaign dollars from fossil fuel companies and which follow through on clean energy principles: choose to support the candidates who, like Representative Eskamani, base their campaigns on ethical sources. If you want to get more involved, volunteer in a campaign! Dive deeper into energy policies and tackle the phone calls, emails, and online petitions necessary to get your opinions out there – it will make a difference.
High schooler Vasakan Mahesan and college student Emma Roherig are proof that climate advocacy starts young, and youth activism may be exactly what we need to give renewable energy policies that final push. Mahesan talks about the power of group advocacy to make even young people a powerful and influential force for the better. Emma Roherig points out that more and more students are getting involved in the environmental movement, starting younger and younger – she cites the example of IDEAS For Us UCF, a branch of IDEAS which is making huge strides on campus and through the UCF student community. This is something we need to encourage: students can lobby, intern with organizations, and invest in grassroots work at many different levels. These are the people who get things done.
Renewable is the Future
All the panelists have a lot of hope for renewable energy’s future, despite its slow start in the present. The transition to clean energy is a step-by-step process, so it’s fine to begin small as long as we make steady progress. Mahesan advises starting local with environmental resolutions, then gradually working up to state and eventually national levels. Representative Eskamani addresses the importance of setting goals – one of her goals is to pass a bill to get Florida 100% renewable-energy-based by 2050. Through bills like this, through incentive programs like carbon taxes, and through individual efforts, we can collectively move away from the environmental catastrophe that is fossil fuel energy. As we move forward, Eskamani says we need to make sure we consider the externalities, because there will always be some kind of waste involved in even the cleaner solutions. Innovation and imagination working to produce products like electric cars will drive the renewable future.
View the panel’s video here: