Green Energy Revisited
If you have read the two previous sections on energy, then you are aware that the most significant question about energy is if and when the world will be able to replace the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy. Because the continued use of fossil fuels is so fraught with severe damage to the ecosphere, 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.1
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 eastern New Mexico.2
The two most commonly mentioned renewables, solar (photo-voltaic) and wind are undependable, intermittent, and their end-product is electricity which represents only about 25% of energy demand. Their implementation is dramatically different from that of petroleum because of their relatively diffuse nature. To estimate their true cost it is necessary to include the as yet insufficient methodologies to store their energy. As they are installed there is a new focus on the cost of the system required to meet demand with a reliable supply of renewable energy. Their application is still highly problematic in large areas of the energy sector as was discussed in the section on Energy by Part.
If we look at what are referred to as large and complex power systems (LCPS), no existing system operates with and annual average use of greater than 30% wind and solar.3 The intermittent nature of renewables currently limits their use beyond that point.
The Scale of What Must Be Done
It is an unprecedented challenge and will require momentous changes in the fossil fuel industry and a “complete redesign of the power sector.”4
Roger Pilke laid out the stark reality in a recent article in Forbes.5
- In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. The expectation for 2019 is 12,000 mtoe.
- This energy consumption produced 33.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
- With about 11,000 days left until 2050, net-zero by then would require the deployment of more than a 1 mtoe per day, and the corresponding equivalent decommissioning of fossil fuel usage.
As we saw in the earlier sections on energy, the coming decades are expected to generate a significant increase in demand. The IEA projects energy consumption to increase at the rate of 1.25% per year into 2040. That will add about an additional 5,800 mtoe by 2050. At this rate, the necessary carbon-free deployment increases to 1.6 mtoe per day.
This analysis can be thought of as necessitating the installation of about 1500 wind turbines over 300 square miles every day, or the deployment of 3 new nuclear plants every two days. Such a revolution would require a focused and comprehensive world-wide effort, something that is hard to imagine in our fractious, divided, polarized societies.
The Bottom Line
Even if battery technology improves fast enough to facilitate the movement to renewable energy, the problem remains: cheap renewables may not be enough to mitigate dangerous global warming because global energy demand is growing faster than the supply of renewable energy.6
Economic growth and rising population mean that renewable energy sources can’t keep up with world-wide energy demand. These new sources of energy are just being added to world energy consumption. With oil supplies plentiful, the world will continue its addiction to fossil fuels. The energy intensity of a barrel of oil still has no effective substitute in many parts of the economy.
The current economic paradigm is unsustainable. If renewable energy is used to replace fossil fuel without changing the basic relationship to the natural world it may delay the eventual collapse, but it will be without purpose.