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Fact vs. Fiction: How Renewables Outshine Fracking

Just how real is the fracking "boom" when compared with other developments within the energy industry—specifically the exponential growth of renewable energy?

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The practice of hydraulic horizontal fracturing or  fracking to extract natural gas from the shale beds of the U.S. began, for all practical purposes, in 2007. Since that time, the production of natural gas within the nation has increased, gas extracted from shale beds more than making up for a decline in production from conventional sources.

And the industry has not been quiet about this growth. Hardly a day passes without some national media outlet expounding the benefits the nation will derive from this recent production “boom.” But just how real is this boom when compared with other developments within the energy industry—specifically the exponential growth of  renewable energy?

Just the facts, ma’am

To be sure, there has been an increase in the production of domestic natural gas. As President Obama noted in his recent  State of the Union address, production of natural gas within the U.S. has never been higher. But since 1971, when annual domestic production hit about 22,000,000 million cubic feet, natural gas production has remained fairly stable, hovering at around the 20,000,000 million cubic feet level.

In 2011, annual domestic natural gas production rose to 24,000,000 million cubic feet (growing by about 20 percent since 1995). An import fact often overlooked in discussions concerning this recent spike in production is that, while output has indeed increased, the number of gas wells needed to produce this gas has increased at a much greater rate (up about 180 percent over the same time period). 

Perhaps the real story in these numbers is that the amount of natural gas per well continues to decline. A sign of an industry past its peak, with declining reserves and lower productivity.

Where has the Real growth been?

While a 20 percent growth in production over a dozen years may be considered a “boom” by some, almost ignored in the national dialogue has been the  recent growth of renewable energy

In 2012, renewable energy accounted for 55 percent of all the new domestic energy created in the U.S. For the first time in history, renewable energy (primarily wind and solar) has become the dominant electrical energy of choice within this nation.

Over the past ten years,  wind energy capacity within the U.S. has grown by more than 960 percent. Last year wind  alone accounted for 42 percent of the total new U.S. electrical capacity installed, and wind energy capacity grew an astounding 22 percent in 2012 alone.

One reason for this remarkable growth can be found in the declining price of renewable energy installations. Since 2008, the price of commercial wind turbines has declined by nearly 30 percent. In 2011,  the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) published that wind power production costs had reached parity with the cost of producing electricity with coal (traditionally considered the cheapest source of electicity). And while the cost of wind power continues to decline, the cost of energy produced by coal continues to rise.

But what about Solar?

While the growth of wind energy capacity has been dramatic in recent years, it pales in comparison with its comparatively small renewable energy cousin—solar electric. 

For all practical purposes, the solar industry in the U.S. is only about ten years old. Prior to 2006, just a very few early adopters had deemed it practical to install relatively small and relatively expensive solar arrays. But in recent years, the price of solar energy has fallen dramatically, and as a result, the installation of photovoltaic (PV) systems has increased in an equally dramatic fashion.

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