The modern world is based on sustained economic growth. As the chart below shows, US real gdp per capita has maintained an overall 2% per annum growth rate through depression, recessions and two world wars. This has been possible because of technological advances increasing the productivity of all economic sectors.
Since around 1970, the cost of producing energy has steadily risen. Initially this was driven by the increasing cost of oil production, and more recently the cost of expensive alternative energy production has also become a significant factor. Energy is a significant part of gdp, so its share growing from around 5% to around 10% of gdp should clearly have been a drag on the growth rate of gdp, reducing it from its long term 2% per annum historical trend.
The colored bars also illustrate a simple model that assumes the economy has two sectors. One sector has a high productivity growth rate of 3% and the other sector is stalled out with 0% productivity growth rate. To make the numbers fit the data we need to start with the non productive sector at 25% of GDP. This produces a breakdown like that shown, with the non productive sector continually increasing as the overall growth rate declines.
These numbers imply that a larger sector of the economy than just energy is contributing to the recent decline in economic growth rate. Increased energy costs account for about a third of the decline by 2015. The other likely contributors to low growth rate are substantial parts of the financial sector, health care and education. This reduced rate of overall economic growth is causing severe economic problems already, with income inequality and stagnant wages. The problems will only get worse if the growth rate continues on its current downward trend.
This illustrates that economic growth is a sensitive thing that cannot survive a large part of the economy becoming less productive. This should make it clear that a competitive, lower cost source of clean energy is a necessary condition for an energy transition that does not destroy economic growth. Current wind and solar are currently several times the needed lower cost and are reducing in cost at too low a rate to be an affordable solution for a long, long time. Other approaches like StratoSolar that can solve the problem without destroying the economy deserve some serious attention.
By Edmund Kelly