The debate about whether 100% renewable energy will ever replace fossils fuels continues to generate heat. According to an article in The Economist1 last year (Can the world thrive on 100% renewable energy? July 13, 2017): ‘It seems impossible to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy mix in the foreseeable future.’
In support of this view, The Economist notes the following indisputable facts:
- Wind and solar still produce only 5.5% of the world’s electricity.
- Though a significant source of renewable energy, the costs of hydropower are rising, and investment is falling.
There are other innumerable statistics relevant to the issue but, as The Economist points out: ‘All energy transitions, such as that from coal to hydrocarbons in the 20th century, take many decades. It is the rate of change that guides where investments flow.’
The Economist acknowledges that photovoltaics (PV) – solar panels – as sources of alternative energy have gained ground in recent years. And a combination of solar PV and wind energy has been chipping away at the dominance of other sources of power generation, such as coal and natural gas.
States The Economist: ‘In some countries the two technologies—particularly solar PV in sunny places—are now cheaper than coal and gas. It is no longer uncommon for countries like Denmark and Scotland to have periods when the equivalent of all their power comes from wind.’
A fossil free energy world
Among the most optimistic proponents of a fossil free energy world is Mark Jacobsen of Stanford University who believes – naively, many others contend – that the U.S. could be fully powered in 2050-55 by wind, water and solar.
His point of view, briefly summarized in The Economist article, received more detailed coverage in Seeker2 (08/23/2017) – a digital publication dedicated to technology and innovation.
According to Seeker contributor Matt Smith, Jacobsen’s plan is ambitious, proposing the build-out of ‘smart’ electrical grids immediately; an end to new coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plant construction by 2020, along with the conversion of all heating, cooking, and other appliances to electricity by the same point.
The last fossil fuel-powered industrial furnaces would be built by 2025, the last internal combustion-driven trucks would roll off the line by 2030, and all new aircraft would be electrically powered by 2040.
Some further projections
Mark Jacobson projects that 139 of the world’s nearly 200 countries could run entirely on renewables by 2050.
‘Technically and economically, it’s feasible,’ Jacobson was quoted as saying – he is a professor of civil and environmental engineering with a background in atmospheric science and energy – ‘we have 98% of all the technology needed.’
According to Jacobson:
- The conversion could cost nearly 25 million jobs in today’s industries across those 139 countries, though the net result would be an increase of more than 24 million permanent, full-time jobs.
- Countries that depend more on fossil fuel production — the oil exporters of the Middle East, for instance — might bear the brunt of the losses, but they can recover by retooling their economies toward new technologies associated with renewables.
Jacobson added that the main obstacles to his vision ‘are more social and political.’ To which I can only add: ‘You’re not kidding!’
Though fascinating and controversial, the debate surrounding the transition from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewables is certain to continue for decades. And the transition itself, though inevitable, is certain to take longer still. Here’s why.
According to Oil Change International – a self-confessed pressure group dedicated to facilitating the transition towards a clean energy future and combating global warming – in the U.S. during the 113th Congress, the oil gas and coal industry spent $350 million contributing to campaigns and lobbying efforts designed to protect their industry.
In return they received approximately $41.8 billion in subsidies, an 11,900% return on investment. That’s political clout and it’s going to be around for some time.
Dave Ritcey, The Ritcey Team, Scotia Wealth Management