There is a finite amount of fossil fuels in the earth, and yet the U.S. is still highly dependent on them. At some point, things will have to change.

Renewable energy technologies are getting more efficient each year, yet there seems to be little political will to make the transition. What are the current barriers stopping the U.S. from adopting green energy on a wide scale?

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    opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?id=E01 Heard of the phrase "lobbying", also Trump doesn't believe in global warming and fossil fuel are still way cheaper than green tech. Commented May 30, 2017 at 15:35
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    Why limit this to the US?
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 18:00
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    This question implies that the US is unique in this.. what major country isn't??
    – Tommy
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 1:02
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    Renewable energy has its uses, but no renewable energy can replace the use of oil today. The switch will takes decades, at a minimum, and while oil is cheaper there is no incentive as other countries would take advantage of it.
    – Shautieh
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 1:27
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    The Cliff's Notes version is that we're actively investing in sources of energy not based on finite sources of fossil fuels while reserving our domestic sourced fossil fuels for an eventual war when everyone else's fuels are exhausted.We leverage our financial clout to purchase everyone's fossil fuels for consumption & reserve our own local sources as a contingency.If a sustainable replacement hasn't been developed when foreign sources are exhausted,we have a logistical advantage defending local sources & a serious leverage advantage via our fuel. (We're not the only ones taking this strategy) Commented May 31, 2017 at 3:46

10 Answers 10


Your premises are wrong.

The US is seriously expanding its green energy, now even faster than expanding its fossil fuels use. The US has large explored resources of coal and oil. Hawaii plans to be off oil by 2045.

Why isn't it going faster? --Money.

Oil is cheap. Even in places like Hawaii where you have to ship oil thousands of miles and you have lots of sun, wind and waves it is still about even cost per watt.

at some point, things will have to change

But we are not at that point yet. As Churchill said

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.

We are perhaps the best placed to ignore changes, and the least inclined to look more than a couple elections into the future as a whole. Oil will get more expensive as we use up the easy to get stuff, green energy will get cheaper as we get more clever and build more production facilities; the money argument will eventually switch sides, and then we'll see how good the lobbyists really are.

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    Oil is subsidised? That's a pretty recurrent myth. It typically is "proven" by showing that some subsidies which apply to all companies also apply to oil companies. E.g. when an oil company hires a disabled person and gets a subsidy for that, that should not be counted as "subsidising oil".
    – MSalters
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:08
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    @MSalters what does "proven" mean? Also, implying that the subsidies we are talking about are ADA related is just silly. We're talking drilling and exploration tax write-offs, reduction of pollution regulation, that kind of thing.
    – user1530
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:14
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    @MSalters there are giant subsidies such as "first year write offs" for drilling expenses. We can debate back and forth on this all day, but yes, Oil is subsidized with specific subsidies that apply specifically to the oil industry--and that's just the direct tax subsidies. We're not even talking indirect subsidies (such as laws protecting fracking from lawsuits and such...)
    – user1530
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:29
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    Imagine I owned a restaurant, and didn't hire anyone to wash the dishes. The smell gets pretty bad, and so the houses and businesses near by ask the government to hire someone to clean it up. My business isn't receiving any money from the government, but I'm still getting a subsidy. The main subsidy on oil companies is the price people pay to deal with their CO2e emissions.
    – Scott
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 22:52
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    One little-discussed subsidy the oil industry enjoys is the military protection in the middle east, the argument being that without a strong naval presence, many tankers would be taken by pirates.
    – kevinsa5
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 23:39

This is actually a rather broad question, but I think it can be answered with some broad concepts.

What are the current barriers stopping the U.S. from adopting green energy on a wide scale?

Barrier 1: Geography

The US is a large landmass. It takes a lot of energy to move goods and people from point a to point b. The nations that have made the most progress towards weaning themselves off of fossil fuels have also been countries with small land area. If you look for articles such at this one that tend to be near the top of 'green energy' nations, they also are countries that are rather small.

Barrier 2: Entrenched Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Globally, the fossil fuel industries are heavily subsidized. Green energy is also subsidized, but there difference between the two is immense...globally, green energy subsidies are in the billions, while fossil fuel subsidies are in the trillions.

Barrier 3: Politics

Federal government over the past couple of decades in the US has been quite partisan. And different administrations and congresses have had different priorities when it comes to green energy.

For example, if you google Obama's green energy subsidies you will see that most of the articles are opinion pieces from the opposing party's pundits claiming it as a failure.

With a changing of the guard, Trump quickly started dismantling Obama era green energy policies.

Barrier 4: The US Never Embraced Nuclear Power

(Thanks to jamesqf's suggestion...) Many nations (such as France) have a long history of using Nuclear power as a major energy source. The US has a period where they began investing in nuclear but there has always been a segment that have protested against it. The Three Mile Island incident was the nail-in-the-coffin for advancing nuclear energy in the US (despite the fact that it could be argued that Three Mile Island was a perfect example of how safe it could be given how well the incident was contained).

  • There is a finite amount of fossil fuels in the earth
  • At some point, things will have to change.
  • Renewable energy technologies are getting more efficient each year

These are all valid points

yet there seems to be little political will to make the transition.

That´s where you start to get things wrong.

The "transition" from fossil fuel isn't something that will be made... its a process that had already begun! And it's not a matter of "political will". Its a matter of economics*!

As fossil fuels have a finite quantity, the costs of using it tend to increase as we get to the point where it is no longer easily available. In the mean time, the costs of renewable energy tends to decrease due to the advances of technologies that make it more cost efficient.

The process of moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy will advance as the costs of using renewable energy starts to matches the costs of using fossil fuels...

What are the current barriers stopping the World from adopting green energy on a wide scale?

It's that the costs of using renewable energy are still far greater than the cost of using fossil fuel in the vast majority of applications...

By economics i mean the matter of allocating scarce resources to better suit people's needs

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    But note that politics has everything to do with the economics of this. Energy, of all kinds, is heavily subsidized via the political process.
    – user1530
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:20
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    It has exactly that power. It could stop subsidizing energy X and start heavily subsidizing energy Y and the transition would happen as industry follows the money.
    – user1530
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:29
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    Actually, the economics of green energy are quite misleading as they fail to account for market pricing of energy. Germany is a good example which shows how green energy stops being economical when it becomes a non-trivial amount: on sunny & windy days, the energy price regularly becomes negative. You have to pay to get rid of green energy, exactly when you have most of it. Coal plants on the other hand can make money by making deals for guaranteed energy delivery, regardless of the weather. And they even make an additional profit by shutting down when it's sunny!
    – MSalters
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:17
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    @MSalters the economics of all energy types are quite misleading. We (as people) don't really account for all the variables.
    – user1530
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:32
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    @MSalters well, the “heavy” fossil plants (coal/nuclear), which still make up more than half of the energy production in Germany, can not just shut down when there's excess, it takes hours and causes lots of extra wear. Else the variability of solar and wind wouldn't really be much of a problem; there certainly wouldn't be negative prices. — But you're right of course that in the long run, this variability is a problem that must yet be solved. Electric cars and smart household devices that would consume energy exactly when it's cheap could go quite some way there. Commented May 30, 2017 at 21:09

There is a finite amount of fossil fuels in the earth, and yet the U.S. is still highly dependent on them. At some point, things will have to change.

Sure. But changing things is expensive. If the only problem is that fossil fuels will eventually run out, then we are better off not changing until we need to do so. We save the costs of switching over until then, and the technology gets cheaper. As we use more and more, fossil fuel prices will go up, making other technologies cost competitive. Eventually it would be cheaper to switch.

If you want to argue that we shouldn't use fossil fuels because of greenhouse warming, that's one thing. But arguing that we shouldn't use them because they'll eventually run out is to misunderstand the problem. People were arguing that in the 1970s. Note that we haven't run out, more than forty years later. This is despite the fact that at the time, we had less than forty years of proved reserves remaining.

We are continually finding more fossil fuels. The world actually has more proven reserves than it had forty years ago. Will that stop eventually? Certainly. But we may all be dead by then. The nuclear power plants that were built in the 1970s are already at end of life and should be replaced or at least refurbished.

The United States has plenty of coal. And with sufficiently high prices, it has plenty of petroleum and natural gas.

When people talk about this, they tend to talk as if we would suddenly run out of fossil fuels. We won't. We'll have steadily diminishing returns. It will cost more and more to extract the fossil fuels.

What are the current barriers stopping the U.S. from adopting green energy on a wide scale?

People don't want to make the changes to do so.

  • Stop using so much energy.
  • Time energy use to availability.
  • Pay more for green alternatives.

Expensive as they are, fossil fuels are still the cheapest form of energy. That changed a bit at the end of the George W. Bush administration, as petroleum got more expensive. But with the decline in prices since, options that worked with $4 a gallon gas aren't competitive with $2.40 a gallon gas.

There are also some problems related to managing the grid. The grid isn't really ready to handle green alternatives, as most of them are variable. Only hydroelectric is baseline power. Only biofuels are on demand. Solar and wind are as supplied. We get them when the sun shines or the wind blows. They may actually increase use of petroleum and natural gas, as those are relatively cheap on demand sources. And as supplied sources require on demand sources to fill in for them.

This makes power more expensive. Since as supplied sources require on demand sources that can completely replace them, getting rid of the as supplied sources makes the system cheaper. Because without them, we can just use the on demand sources. Beyond that, some of the on demand sources could be replaced with cheaper baseline power (coal or nuclear) if they didn't have to take the as supplied energy.

Power companies are reluctant to increase their prices (even assuming regulators will let them). People are more likely to buy on price than greenness. For example, Green Mountain Energy provides 175,000 KW of generation capacity, but that's only .5% of US capacity.

Note that some will argue that fossil fuels are more heavily subsidized than green sources. This is disputed and I don't want to rehash that argument here. Even if we accept that as true, people still aren't willing to pay the extra without subsidies. And politicians enable them. Some politicians want to reduce the federal gasoline tax, even though its fixed value per gallon means that as prices increase, revenues fall. Thus important road and bridge maintenance stagnates without sufficient revenue to support the costs.

  • Only hydroelectric can provide baseline power, and here in the Inland Northwest where we have lots of it, it's been deemed "non-green". Probably because the infrastructure has already been built and works so it doesn't make a good porkbarrel project for the politicians.
    – Perkins
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 19:16
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    Another change people don't want to make is "needless consumerism". All the Broken Plastic Crap we (in the US) buy comes from China, and they are very lax with respect to pollution laws. The container ships to bring forth said Broken Plastic Crap are also tremendous polluters. The world's 16 largest container ships produce more pollution than all cars in the world.
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 22:45
  • @TonyEnnis that's quite some claim and could use concrete numbers. No doubt a giant container ship causes a lot of pollution, but because it can carry such a vast amount of load it's still often hailed one of the most efficient means of transportation in terms of distance×mass per tonne of CO₂ produced. Of course that's saying nothing about other pollution. Without reference to what you mean, “more pollution” is pretty meaningless... I bet it's possible to focus on some heavy metals and deduce that hydroelectric power is the dirtiest means of power production, but that's hardly sensible then. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 9:05
  • @Brythan your argument may be valid, but “we are better off not changing until we need to do so” is IMO a pretty questionable basic attitude: what if we use up almost all of the oil and then ten years later discover a fabulous new use of the stuff that nobody has though of before? Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 9:08

For the same reason chip cards still show incipient adoption in the U.S., even while they're considered a much better technological solution to magnetic strip cards:

Social, economic and industrial inertia.

Let's take Brazil for example. Right after the 1973 oil crisis the number of vehicles manufactured in Brazil was one order of magnitude smaller (~750k units) than the US (7M+), despite having half the population (Brazil 108.4 million / U.S. 216 million). A strategic decision was made at the time by the government to switch to ethanol production in order to fuel the Brazilian fleet. Quoting Wikipedia,

The Brazilian car manufacturing industry developed flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on any proportion of gasoline (E20-E25 blend) and hydrous ethanol (E100).[...] The success of "flex" vehicles, together with the mandatory E25 blend throughout the country, allowed ethanol fuel consumption in the country to achieve a 50% market share of the gasoline-powered fleet in February 2008.

The two most important points here - the Brazilian car industry wasn't even close to reach market saturation back then, and manufacturer lobby wasn't nearly as strong as it is today; as a result, the government had enough political power to set this course. Meanwhile, the U.S. car industry was already a very successful aspect of the U.S. economy, with lots of lobbying power to spare.

The same inertia can be correlated to chip card use. U.S. have a huge technological base focused on magnetic strip, so efforts to switch to a more secure technological solution fight an uphill battle. A comparatively incipient presence in Brazil allowed credit companies to successfully implement EMV to the extent that magnetic strip-based cards are virtually nonexistent.


Although a lot of people are implicating fossil fuel subsidies as one of the main reasons for their low price, those subsidies (mostly oil) are there for a reason. Renewable energy is great for a lot of things, but right now there is NO renewable solution for bulk transportation. Transportation of people and goods is really, really important for a nation's economy to function, so countries have to put resources towards securing enough oil to keep all their transportation systems functioning.

Electric trains may be a solution someday, but biofuels certainly won't be, nor should they be. We'd have to farm most of the planet's land for fuel instead of food, and that certainly wouldn't end well. I remember reading once how many acres of farmland would be needed to fuel a single 747 transatlantic flight, and it was shocking. Imagine habitat loss for wildlife, poor people starving because of high food prices, the list goes on.

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    Why should they be subsidized? Surely if bulk transportation is so problematic then it makes sense for people who rely on it to pay for it, giving them an incentive to minimize it. Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 16:46

Green Energy may be getting more efficient, but it is nowhere near as efficient as petroleum. It is less expensive and easier to obtain fossil fuels than it is anything else termed "green energy".

If you pick the measure of efficiency as being the amount of energy that can be produced in a square meter, you have 2.5 watts for wind, 5 watts for solar (best conditions) and 100 watts for gasoline.

You can see this by imagining a generator that you can buy at a hardware store which can produce 1000W and is only as big as your knee. Now think how many solar panels will it take to produce 1000W, when each 2 by 5 panel produces 150 watts.

You can make a similar case regarding the amount of money that it would cost to produce that wattage. For example, a solar panel may be $400 for 150 watts, and a 1000W generator for $500.

Politically speaking, green energy requires some comfort sacrifices. For example, in Germany one must make do with no air conditioner and as little water use as possible for the "green ideal". You would have to convince a lot of people to lower their standard of living to commit to that ideal.

(Please note that I single out Germany because according to the Wikipedia article on German water use it is the country which uses the second lowest amount of water, and because on a tourist trip there of five European countries, I was told the reason that there is no air conditioner is because of the high energy efficiency green ideal of the country. Furthermore, a recent episode of House Hunters in Germany added some information about the high-efficiency water heaters used in Germany that take up a large amount of space in homes and therefore, are an incentive to not use hot water as much. However, not living there, I may be wrong.)

The information for watts per area comes from uswitch.com, a website that makes the case of why fossil fuels are still more economical than green alternatives.

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    Can you add sources for this?
    – JonK
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 16:35
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    "For example in Germany must make do with no Air Conditioner" - I suppose if someone is indoctrinated from birth that they live in the Best Country On Earth, they can't be blamed for believing that sort of nonsense. The reason German (and British) homes don't have air conditioning is because they don't need it - they don't have the same crappy climate as most of the USA. On the other hand, all the buildings that do need it (shops, offices, etc) have it!
    – alephzero
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:02
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    I undestand, my statement is not a criticism, just the fact that it is possible politically be more green. Germany appears to have overcome the "personal comfort" obstacle. Me, as a wasteful American, was very uncomfortable in the hotel with no air-conditioner in August because I always have it when I need it back home. Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:20
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    Probably far too complicated for this site, but the "costs" entirely disregards long-term costs - pollution, health problems (like coal extraction workers), and, obviously, the trillions in expected expenses from global warming effects, both responding to and trying to mitigate. Most of the numbers you see touting the "cheap" cost of fossil fuels are pretty narrowly focused, enough to be not accurate. Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:39
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    I appreciate the nice comments. I learn alot. My point is that it is possible to politically change the mind of a populations (As always not 100% but a large enough group) to be more "green". As you all have stated, the reasons are: high taxes (water), cultural (historic), societal. I enjoy diversity like this. It is the German way and not anybody else's way which is why outsiders want to experience Germany. Why would anyone leave their home if everywhere was the same. Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 12:06

The reasons is likely comparable to why, while earning huge money, as of 2021 the oil industry in USA is still getting over $20.5 billion of in support each year through the tax code. I would be surprised if anything else than lobbying.


Part of the reason the US, and Europe, for that matter, still rely on fossil fuel is the expense of changing over. A new renewable plant costs far more than a fossil fuel plant whose cost was amortized years ago. And renewable plants aren't zero operating costs... they require substantial maintenance. With governments already running deficits, where will that money come from?

Part of the reason is that neither the US or European economy could function on renewables alone, with current technology. The most promising renewables: solar and wind, don't deliver power when it is needed. Wind farms shut down during storms or when the wind dies down, and solar quits when the sun goes down.

What is missing is a cost effective way to store large amounts of electric power, so that it can be generated in optimal renewable conditions, yet be available when it is needed to run a nation's economy. That solution is in progress. Nations could help by cutting funding on climate research, and boosting funding for the solution to climate change, which we already know: use less fossil fuel. Duh just doesn't say it.

As for alternate fuel autos, a lone US company has done far more than any country in that regard.

Until the first part of this decade, the available all electric vehicles were fairly pitiful (g-wiz), accepting the idea that one had to suffer to be green.

Enter Elon Musk and the Tesla Model S - the first all electric car that people actually want to own, and not just because it's electric... it's a terrific (albeit pricey) car. And the price is about the same as, say, a BMW 5 series, which the Model S competes with.

So the powerful auto lobby and the powerful oil lobby couldn't stop one person who nearly went broke getting Tesla off the ground.

Since Tesla rose to fame, some auto makers have gone back to the drawing board and have begun to come up with viable, practical, decent electric cars. This wasn't a conspiracy, it was more dull auto executives and entrenched thinking. Nothing like losing sales to get them moving.

The upcoming Tesla model 3, at USD$35k with a 200 mile range, is definitely a positive step, as is the half million pre orders for it... with a $1k deposit. The interest is there. When someone can develop an all electric car, with a 500 mile range, priced at under $25k, people will buy it. Not to be green, but because it's a better deal. In the US, if 1/4 of the cars on the road were all electric, we could shut off foreign oil purchases completely, from the ME and elsewhere.

In the end, that is what it will take to get us off of fossil fuel. The replacement not only has to be green, it has to be less expensive than fossil fuel, or enough short sighted people will go to the polls and vote in legislators to restore their lower power bills.

  • "Part of the reason is that neither the US or European economy could function on renewables alone, with current technology." That doesn't make sense. The alternatives are not "go with renewables alone" or "use no renewables at all," just as even in your answer you point out that a mix of ICE and electric cars can be used. Nor would I accept "the expense of changing over" without references; the success of China eating America's lunch in solar technologies invented and developed in the U.S. seems to indicate there is money to be made there.
    – cjs
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 0:52

Because there's a widespread illusion that a short-term solutions can be better than long-term solutions. Sure you can buy an ICE car that's cheaper than an electric car, and sure you can drive further with that.... but the long-term cost will be higher, especially if there's an energy crisis.

While it may be less than appropriate for road trips... it's perfectly fine for city even in entry-level models. Yet I've seen families who own two brand new ICE cars and no EVs. And that's as absurd as it sounds.

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