Shifting Macrocontingencies: Renewable Energy Overtakes Coal

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Dr. Tony Biglan, a noted behavior analyst known for his work on a variety of large-scale social issues, introduced behavior analysts to the concept of negative externalities in a paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. The concept refers to undesirable byproducts of economic transactions, such as pollution.  By contrast, positive externalities refer to desirable economic byproducts, such as healthcare, education, and clean energy.

According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), the latter is becoming more prevalent. They noted “for the first time ever, the renewable energy sector (hydro, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal) is projected to generate more electricity than coal-fired plants.” Over the short term, the shift can be attributed in part to seasonal trends in power production.  Coal plants tend to go offline during the spring and fall, periods of lower demand, for maintenance and preparation for the high power demands of summer and winter.  Additionally, hydro-electric power generation tends to be at its highest in the spring, according to the IEEFA.

Over the longer term, however, renewable energy may be here to stay.  The Energy Information Administration projects that renewable energy will provide 18% of U.S. power needs in 2019 and 20% in 2020.  They further noted that “wind generation will surpass hydroelectric generation to become the leading source of renewable electricity in both years.”  Coal, by contrast, reached a five-year peak in 2018 and is projected to decline.  Moreover, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to decline by 1.6% and 1% in 2019 and 2020 respectively, according to the EIA.

IEEFA suggests we have reached a tipping point for renewable energy, that started in Texas.  They noted that wind and solar energy production exceeded coal in spring of 2018 but 2019 saw the first quarter overtaken by renewables in the state.  Though coal will likely make a comeback this summer, IEEFA believes the data “are indicative of the fundamental disruption happening across the electric generation sector.”

In their report titled Coal Outlook 2019, IEEFA points to a few factors contributing to the decline of coal.  For example, the relatively recent technique of fracking has greatly increased the supply of natural gas and reduced its price.  Natural gas is a far cleaner form of energy than coal, oil, or gasoline.  The costs of renewable energy production are also coming down, likely aided by increased corporate interest in green energy, and concern about climate change.  Finally, most coal plants in the U.S. are aging, and getting more costly to maintain.

The larger energy trends also find support in the financial markets.  For example, QCLN, an Exchange Traded Fund that tracks the NASDAQ Clean Edge Green Energy Index, is up more than 13% over the past year.  By contrast, KOL, which tracks a basket of companies linked to the coal industry, is down over 6% over the past year.

While such trends may not have many implications for your behavior on an individual level, they have strong implications for the macrocontingencies in which your behavior participates. As we have mentioned elsewhere, macrocontingencies consist of macrobehavior and a cumulative effect.  In this case, since so much of our behavior depends on electricity, you may regard power consumption as a broad class of macrobehavior when seen across millions of people.  The cumulative effects of said behavior are changing due to larger market forces at work, tied to the decisions of leaders in the corporate and policy sectors.

Your behavior may not change much, but its effects are changing dramatically.

What do you think about current trends in renewable energy?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org

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