The Energy sector of the world economy is in a state of unprecedented change. Unprecedented, in that never before has there been the realization that the speed with which we stop using the current predominant energy source will have a profound impact on the future of the biosphere.

The shifts from wood to coal to hydrocarbons were all done with the belief that these changes represented “progress,” and indeed, unlocking the energy density of hydrocarbons has enabled a significant leap in the standard of living for billions of people. It is an energy source that has became addictive. We have become so taken with these power sources that even after being told of the dangers inherent in their use in the late 1980s, we have denied that reality and put half the total emissions produced since 1750 into the atmosphere in the last 30 years.1

Trying to predict the rate at which renewable energy will become an integral part of the world to come is an open question dependent on three key technologies: wind, solar (photovoltaic), and batteries. At base it comes down to whether or not we can move to renewables in time to avoid the demise of earth systems upon which we depend. With so much uncertainty in the equation, there are some technologies we may want to avoid. Take nuclear power, for example. Many intelligent people working on environmental issues are now talking about the need to take another look at nuclear energy in spite of its many problems. But what if we commit to building the multitude of reactors necessary and then witness the failure of the systems needed to keep those reactors working – water, electricity, humans to manage the stations?

All civilizations run on energy. Our global industrial civilization has evolved with a stark positive correlation with access to energy. The use of coal as a successor to wood-burning began in the mid-18th Century It was cheaper and produced more energy when burned. It is interesting to note that the environmental impact of coal use during the 19th Century has been little studied. Coal was replacing the use of water to run industrial systems and represented a threat to the health of those where it was used in England. In addition, a recent paper cites reduced employment growth and slower urbanization.2 This has clear implications for China and India as they continue to use large amounts of coal.

In 1859 the first oil well was dug and the internal combustion engine followed shortly thereafter in 1861. For the remaining part of the 19th century, though, gasoline was merely a byproduct of the refining of kerosene. With the development of electricity, generated by hydraulic turbines, the demand for oil diminished. This all changed, of course, as the automobile began to become a part of modern life in the early 20th century.

In the 1920s, there were 17,000 miles of streetcar lines throughout major American cities and there is a widespread theory that General Motors used National City Lines to buy these routes and convert them to bus lines. Apparently, it’s more complicated than that. So, what killed the streetcar? Cars did help to replace streetcars by being given access to the same roads as the streetcar lines. The gridlock created by this poor city management, combined with fares that were kept artificially low by poorly managed streetcar companies drove Americans to the automobile.3

Fast forward to 1950, two world wars and the depression later, and world energy consumption was about 25,000 TWh, (a TWh is one trillion watt hours), having barely increased over the previous 100 years.

After the second world war, what is now referred to as the “Great Acceleration” began and world energy consumption is now approaching 150,000 TWh.  Once again, we are confronted with the extraordinary change that has occurred in the span of one human lifetime. Predictions about future demands for energy suggest that it will not slow, but continue to grow by one-third by 2040. 

Much of this new demand will come from developing countries like China and India. The implications are significant and will affect all energy sources. The 2018 World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA) states that by 2040 “Asia makes up half of global growth in natural gas, 60% of the rise in wind and solar PV, more than 80% of the increase in oil, and more than 100% of the growth in coal and nuclear (given declines elsewhere).”4

Information technology processes will also require huge amounts of electricity to support the Internet. Like so many developments, there is as yet, relatively little attention being paid to this phenomenon – we just assume that it can grow forever with no ramifications for the energy ticket.

Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing energy consumption by population estimates. From Our Finite World, based on Angus Maddison data.

If we look at per capita energy consumption since 1820, we see a four-fold increase. These world figures represent large improvements in the quality of life for many on the planet, but they mask huge inequalities in energy use. The most recent IPCC report in October 2018 is lauded as a more honest appraisal of the climate situation, but it fails to address the subject that wealthy countries don’t want to talk about which is that climate change is ultimately a rationing issue. Almost 50% of global carbon emissions result from the activities of about 10% of world population; 70% are from 20% of world population.5 This huge asymmetry in lifestyles represents a real factor regarding the efforts to reduce GHG emissions and a moral issue which has yet to be adequately addressed.

Between 1850 and 2014, the United States emitted more GHG than any other country. The US also topped the list in per capita emissions in 2014. Although China is now the world’s largest emitter of GHG emissions, in December 2018 UN climate talks, China criticized developed countries “for not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide finance to help poor countries do the same.”6 The transfer of financial support from the developed world to developing countries is a key part of the 2015 Paris agreement, but negotiations have stalled over inaction and claims of lack of transparency.

NYT, June 1, 2017
NYT, June 1, 2017

With energy demand projected to grow enormously, the obvious question is where is the energy going to come from to meet this increased demand. The world is moving to a secondary energy source, electricity, however most of it is currently generated by burning fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources are growing rapidly as their average cost continues to decline. The cost of producing one megawatt-hour of electricity from solar is now about one half that of producing it with coal.7 Even so, they represent but a small part of current energy production.

And coal is not going away – it still produces about 40% of the world’s energy. The International Energy Agency published its annual report in November, 2018 and projected that coal consumption could stay flat for decades. As the New York Times points out, “the average coal plant in Asia is less than 15 years old.”8 The same report predicts that demand for oil will continue to rise though 2040. The petrochemical, shipping, and aviation sectors of the economy remain almost totally reliant on petroleum products. The IEA projects renewable energy to account for 40% of energy use by 2040, but that’s not enough growth to avert further decades of fossil fuel emissions. 

Here is a link to a fascinating map of the world’s coal power plants:


Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, formerly an industry insider, has become a staunch critic of fracking. In his terms, it is “the technological gamble that should not have been taken.” Fracking has, however, made the US the top natural gas and crude oil producer in the world. The US is now a net oil exporter, and will provide 80% of the increase in global oil supply through the next decade, maintaining downward pressure on oil prices. By 2025, US oil production is expected to equal that of Saudi Arabia and Russia combined.9

The Permian Basin in West Texas is undergoing another boom in its long history with oil. But there is currently a logistical problem because there is not enough infrastructure to handle all the petroleum being produced. New pipelines will send 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas and about 550,000 barrels of oil per day to Corpus Christi and ships headed around the world.

This $327 million dollar project is a small part of the more than $450 billion spent in 2018 on upstream (exploratory) global oil and gas. Total world-wide investment in oil and gas is larger at $715 billion for 2017, but was exceeded by spending on the electricity sector of $750 billion. While this may sound like good news, unfortunately, combined spending on renewable energy and efficiency fell by 3% in 2017.10

These numbers are disappointing if we are hoping for a dramatic move to renewables in the near future. They represent a world still committed to oil, gas, and coal for most of its energy needs. But, in truth, how could it be different.

 Just 100 companies have been the source of 70% of GHG emissions since 1988. These entities are the petroleum majors and over 40 state-owned companies.11 The IEA reports that 70% of all new energy investment will be government driven. Global proven oil reserves were almost 17 trillion barrels of oil. With the world using about 90 million barrels a day, that’s enough oil to last another 50 years.12 Were we to burn only 5 trillion tons of the known reserves, we could expect a global mean warming of between 6.5 and 9.5 degrees Celsius.13

It is also now known that Exxon understood the physics of climate change almost 40 years ago and spent millions in a disinformation campaign to cloud the issue. A Scientific American article (Oct 26, 2015) reports that eleven years before James Hansen’s report to Congress, an Exxon scientist, James Black produced a sobering and highly accurate assessment of the implications of burning fossil fuels to Exxon’s management committee.

Perhaps it will help to understand the implications here if we distill (pun intended) the impact in emissions of burning an average barrel of crude oil: 317 kg of CO2!14

Burning a gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Physical and chemical properties of gasoline: Department of Energy (DOE), Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), Properties of Fuels.

Air Travel

Flying is a high cost carbon emissions source. Jet fuel produces even more CO2 than gasoline (21 pounds per gallon). The aviation industry uses 5 million barrels of oil per day. If we take the latest number for 2018, the US airline industry alone, added over 375 billion pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere. A single round-trip flight from NYC to Paris creates an individual carbon footprint of 0.86 tons of CO2. A round-trip from NYC to LA is 0.59 tons, that’s 20% of what your car emits in a year. For each ton of carbon dioxide emitted, three square meters of Arctic summer sea ice is lost. A round trip from San Francisco to Frankfurt melts five square meters of sea ice.

The increase in the demand for air travel as incomes rise in the developing world means that the number of passenger aircraft could double by 2035.

If it is necessary to fly, there are many ways to purchase carbon offsets which will mitigate the environmental impact of flying.

The Transition to Renewable Energy

Part of the explanation for the slow change to renewable energy sources is that a staggering $5 trillion a year in subsidies is going to the fossil fuel industry.15 A report in the journal World Development points out that the true costs of fossil fuels are not appreciated and should “reflect the gap between consumer prices and economically efficient prices.” With this view the authors then quantify the opportunity cost made available to society if the subsidies were reformed. China, the USA, and Russia are the top three subsidizers. By making fossil fuels cheaper than their true costs the subsidies promote their use and their GHG emissions, they discourage investment in renewables, and distort governmental  budgets with unnecessary costs.

The fossil fuel industry has sunk costs of about 25 trillion dollars, and they continue to pour money into lobbying efforts to delay, control, or block policies to prevent climate change. The five largest oil and gas companies listed on the stock market are spending almost $200 million a year to protect their investments.16

But let’s assume that we could get rid of the subsidies and put policies in place to encourage the use of renewable energy sources. According to an article by James Temple in Technology Review, the rate at which we are overhauling the energy system is about an order of magnitude slower than necessary. The scale of what needs to be done is overwhelming and would require an unprecedented combination of economic, political, and technical challenges.17 Consider, there is no plan, and the United States is one of only two modern economies without an integrated electrical grid, making implementation even more distant.

The Energy Transformation

Every energy transition throughout history has happened over decades, perhaps a century. If there is one thing that seems clear about the future, it is that fossil fuels will remain a significant part of energy production, even as we make the transition to renewables. How one sees the energy future appears to depend on the viewer. It’s a multiple choice.

Our Finite World, based on data from

If you are looking for an optimistic forecast, Jorgen Randers who participated in The Limits to Growth (1972), has recently produced an update for his book 2052: A Global Forecast for the next Forty Years (2012). He says that as oil usage declines, it will be slow and accompanied by an increase in renewables, coal, and natural gas. Global population will level off below UN forecasts and growth will be tempered by more moderate consumption.18

McKinsey and Co., a global management consulting company, (no graphic), sees global energy intensity (the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of GDP) dropping to half of what it was in 2013. That would be good news and a form of “decoupling.” By 2050, non-hydro renewables will account for more than a third of global power generation (up from 6% in 2014). Fossil fuels will, however, continue to dominate energy use through 2050. The sunk investments in fossil fuels and its reliability will mean that its use will fall only slightly to 74 percent from 82 percent now.19

The Bloomberg New Energy Outlook 2018 predicts that cheap renewable energy and new battery technology will fundamentally reshape the electricity system. We will see a shift from two-thirds fossil fuels in 2017 to two-thirds renewables by 2050. That would occur as hydro, nuclear, and other renewables account for 71% of zero-carbon electricity, with wind and solar providing 50% of it.20 Coal and gas will still provide 29% of energy mix by 2050 while use of oil would be phased out during the 2020s. 

PetroChina Research Institute of Petroleum Exploration & Development, Beijing

Because China will play such a large part in the trajectory of energy use during this century, it seems appropriate to include an analysis from a Chinese petroleum research institute.21 As you can see, their view, encompassing the entire century, includes a prolonged period for oil and a significant dependency on natural gas.  In this view fossil fuels play a continuing major part in energy production even into the second half of the century. They also add, as does the Bloomberg analysis, that the development of improved batteries will be essential to the adoption of renewable energy sources and could hasten their usage.

IRENA, A Roadmap to 2050

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has recently released “A Roadmap to 2050.” 22 The chart above shows the effect of a doubling of total final energy consumption to renewables for the production of electricity. China, the European Union, India, and the US could all increase total final energy consumption (TFEC) from renewables to 60% or more. To accomplish this, a transformation in the power sector would be essential, moving from renewable energy of 25% to 85% by 2050. The speed of change in Industry, transport, and building sectors, however, continues to lag as they remain more difficult to decarbonize.

When we look to clean energy sources to rescue us from the obvious perils of fossil fuels, in typical human fashion, the impact on the biosphere of rolling out solar and photo-voltaic energy at the scale necessary is often overlooked. Every year, hundreds of thousands of birds are killed by wind turbines. Half a million or more bats are killed in a similar fashion. Concentrated solar towers are also lethal for birds, but large scale photovoltaic solar facilities are safer and could be placed in remote, un-populated areas.

One of the big problems with both solar and PV is that they are energy dilute. They are going to require huge areas of the planet and enormous amounts of materials. We need to think carefully about where to put these facilities with concern for all creatures affected by them.

Mehran Moalem, of UC Berkeley, calculated in 2016 that a solar farm in the Sahara 335 kilometers by 335 kilometers could generate 17.4 TW of the 17.3 TW needed to power the entire globe for a total cost of 5 trillion dollars.23 That is an efficiency, though, that will be hard to replicate in the real world.

Nuclear power will continue to play a marginal role in global power generation. It currently provides about 11% of the world’s electricity from 450 reactors.24 Its future remains uncertain with the projections for 2050 varying from maintaining current levels to growing by 123%. A major factor here is the rapid expansion of shale gas as a low cost competitor. Many countries are opting to phase out nuclear in favor of renewables. China will be the outlier with an ambitious plan accounting for almost three quarters of new supply.25

Electricity is sometimes referred to as the “oil” of the 21st Century. It currently accounts for only about 20% of global final energy consumption, but that number is forecast to rise dramatically in the years to come.  The central question about electricity, though, is what will be used to generate it?

The good news from all of these scenarios is that coal will eventually be left behind as natural gas and renewables replace it. The cost of renewables is falling so fast that they are now the cheapest available option in some situations. The US Energy Information Administration has just released numbers showing that renewable electricity generation has doubled in the last 10 years.26

As you can see, about 17.5% of US power now comes from renewables. But about 7% of that is from hydroelectric dams, leaving solar and wind with a little less than 8% of our electricity. Bill McKibben, co-founder of has just reviewed a report by Kingsmill Bond of Carbon Tracker is an independent financial think tank that works on the impact of energy transitions on capital markets. They are currently very focused on the move to renewable energy and build the case that we are about to see a dramatic shift to clean energy as decisions are made to build and replace power plants.

So there you have it. A handful of scenarios for the next 30 years. Even under a best case scenario, though, we should expect fossil fuels to remain a significant part of the energy sector.

What will it mean for the planet if the consensus about energy usage through mid-century is correct? Since 2015, GHG emissions as recorded at the Mauna Loa Observatory have been climbing at a rate of almost 3 ppm/year (2.75 ppm). If we do the math for the next 30 years, at that rate we would be approaching 500 ppm in 2050. That could translate to earth warming of perhaps more than 3 degrees.28 Bad enough, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. 

All of the forecasts discussed here assume a world acting in a predictable linear way as we have known it to do during the Holocene Epoch. We are, however, leaving that world behind and there is no return. As the world warms we face the unknown possibility of global feed backs and tipping points.

Update June 20, 2019 – Data Centers: The Energy Bandit We Need to Talk About29

  • From the Journal of Cleaner Production: energy consumption by the information and communications technology (ICT) industry is projected to grow from 8% to 14% of total global energy consumption.
  • From Nature magazine: data centers currently use an estimated 200 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year. This is 1% of global electricity demand and more energy consumption than some countries.
  • By 2020, the Natural Resources Defense Council has projected that U.S. data center electricity consumption will increase to approximately 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually. This will cost U.S. businesses $13 billion. It means that U.S. data centers would produce nearly 150 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year. Equal to the annual output and pollution of 50 coal-fired power plants.

Update October 6, 2019 – Wood Mackenzie White Paper30

There is an inherent bias in news content for the case that the transition to renewable energy sources can be accomplished on a global scale and in time to avert wide-spread ecological damage. While it is true that every year there is an increase in renewable energy production, it continues to be the case that demand for energy is growing faster than the increase in renewables. This increased demand for energy is being met largely by the use of fossil fuels. In the United States coal is being replaced by natural gas, not renewable energy sources.31

It is also evident that our worry about running out of fossil fuels is misplaced – the real problem is the pollution that will be generated by the continued use of fossil fuels. As the United States becomes a net exporter of oil for the first time in 75 years, new reserves are being added. The largest continuous oil and gas field ever found has recently been discovered in the Permian Basin in west Texas and New Mexico.32

The two most commonly mentioned renewables, solar (pv) and wind are undependable, intermittent, and their end-product is electricity which represents only about 25% of energy demand.To estimate their true cost it is necessary to include the as yet insufficient methodologies to store their energy. Their application is still highly problematic in large areas of the energy sector as will be discussed in Energy by Part.


Energy, Growth, and the Environment

Ultimately, we are confronted with the fact that there is a well-documented relationship between energy consumption and growth. It is perfectly clear that without some methodology for decoupling energy use, growth, and environmental damage, the energy demands in the coming decades will lead to a continuing tragedy for the biosphere.