Slaying the Dragon of Fossil Fuels: Are We Tilting at Windmills?

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It has been suggested that the replacement of coal with natural gas, which was made possible by fracking, is a good example of how technological creativity can save us from the dire fate that climate change holds in store for us.  I think the parallel is dubious.  The switch to natural gas just involved switching from one form of fossil fuel to another.  The concentrated energy was there for us to mine.

The challenges of switching from fossil fuels to renewables is quite a different matter.  It requires the construction of a vast infrastructure of specialized equipment to extract the non-concentrated kinetic energy from wind and radiant energy from light.* Easy math will tell you that we need at least 10 million 2MW wind turbines or 20 million 2MW solar farms or some combination to replace projected energy requirements in 2050.  (Energy savings by converting to electric power is incorporated in the forecast.)

*(I’m leaving nuclear out because of the irrational fear that has kept it on the sidelines for 40 years.)

For discussion purposes, let’s say we go with a 50/50 arrangement – 5 million wind turbines and 10 million solar farms.  In order to get these built by 2050 we would have to build 1,000 wind turbines a day and 2,000 solar farms a day.  And we would have to replace them every 20 years, which means that periodically, the build rate would double.

And we would have to build a global infrastructure of energy storage facilities.  Assuming we want to back up 25% of the renewable energy produced, we would need capacity equal to 500,000 plants like the one that Tesla built at the Hornsdale Power Reserve in Australia.  And the batteries would have to be replaced every 15 years.

And we would need to replace all 1.3 billion vehicles on the road with electric vehicles and build a global network of charging stations for them.

And we would need to triple the size of the global electric grid and upgrade it to electronically perform sophisticated load balancing.

And we would need to convert all non-electric applications (in addition to cars) to electricity (eg – gas heat must become electric heat) which will entail huge infrastructure changes in the retail, commercial, and industrial sectors.

And we will have to remove up to 1,200 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere to get us back down to 350 ppm.  The nascent carbon capture industry is hardly ready for the task.  The most advanced example of carbon capture is done by Carbon Engineering in Squamish, Canada.  It would take 100,000 plants of the largest size that Carbon Engineering has on the drawing boards operating 7 x 24 x 365 for 6,100 years to remove 1,200 billion tons of CO2.  Alternatively it would take 10 million of these plants operating for 61 years to do the job.

And we have 30 years to do all of it.

And we still haven’t touched aviation and shipping, two vast activities that consume copious amounts of fossil fuels and that are not amenable to being converted to electric power without breakthrough technological advances that will allow the storage of large amounts of energy in a compact and lightweight form that can be readily recharged.

No doubt technological improvements will reduce the effort required, but the sheer scope of the tasks required is so enormous that the efficiency and productivity gains would have to be in the range of two or three orders of magnitude in order to begin to get these tasks into a practicable range, which is not going to happen in the near term, and it is the near term with which we are concerned, because the next several decades will determine how bad this crisis will become.

By 2050, the EIA forecast says that renewables will account for 26% of global energy (see graph below).  Although far short of 100%, this is a meaningful percentage of the whole.  But renewables here include energy from three long-standing sources: nuclear, hydro, and biomass, none of which has much growth potential.  There is political opposition to nuclear, environmental and geographic limitations to hydro, and emissions and efficiency questions that make biomass less than ideal.

So what we are really interested in is where renewable growth is focused: wind and solar.  The following graph shows the EIA projection for fossil fuels plotted against expected wind and solar energy.

As you can see, even by 2050, wind and solar are barely moving the needle. This is because energy demand is growing faster than renewable energy capacity.  But even if energy demand did not grow, and fossil fuel use did not increase, if wind and solar followed the growth plotted on this chart, by 2050 they would still only represent 13% of the energy produced by fossil fuels.  And even if we assumed a doubling of the growth rate of wind and solar, by 2050 they would still represent only 30% of the energy produced by fossil fuels, still assuming that fossil fuel use did not grow past the 2020 level.

This is not doom-saying; this is math.  We need to make every effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it does not help if we don’t look the problem squarely in the eyes.  The demands we have placed on the planet are far more than it can bear without inducing a response from homeostatic climate systems that are causing the surface temperature to increase as the planet, like any other black body, radiates the additional heat into space.  This will change the face of the planet and radically alter both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  In the face of this stark reality, the global population continues to grow, and the global per capita carbon footprint continues to increase.

We are in thrall to energy consumption, and kicking the habit cannot happen without our willingness to profoundly change our lifestyle and values.  This addiction has been aggravated in a more than an incidental way by the narrow self-interests of a small group of lawless and powerful individuals who have pirated control of our governments and are now frustrating the ability of the smartest species on the planet to save itself.  And so, despite the efforts of some, our trajectory of increased fossil fuel use has not changed and there is no sign that it is going to change.

How do you describe the fact that a few individuals, blinded by greed, are willing to sell out their own species?  The people who are in the process of perpetrating this unspeakable travesty are not worse than the rogues that preceded them, it’s just that their venality is in service to a transgression that could spell the end of civilization and perhaps of the human species. It has already done to death many other species in what is now recognized as another mass extinction event.

In the face of this ongoing crime against humanity, the worst acts of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot will pale by comparison.  It spells the protracted suffering and horrible death of hundreds of millions and even billions of people – many cut short in the flower of their youth, never to enjoy the halcyon days of a dimly remembered past – the days that were ours to enjoy.