The Powers of Fossil Fuels
In this post I present a brief perspective spanning two centuries of the history of energy and mainly fossil fuels (FFs) consumption. Then a brief look at the recent years growth in solar and wind (renewables) and how their growth measures up against FFs since 1990.
In the early 1800s biomass (primarily wood) were humans’ primary source for exogenous energy. Coal became increasingly introduced into the energy mixture after the successful development and deployment of the steam engine which gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Coal is a nonrenewable, abundant and a denser energy source than wood. The growing use of biomass had led to deforestation in those areas serving energy intensive industries like mining and metals. The steam engine and its use of abundant coal as an energy source made it possible to rapidly expand the industrial production, create economic growth, thus the Industrial Revolution was in reality a revolution made possible by fossil fuels. With the most recent discoveries and introduction of fossil oil and natural gas there appeared to be several abundant sources of volumetric dense energy that could entertain exponential and illusive economic growth. Fossil fuels represent natures’ legacy stock of dense energy (ancient sunlight) that during some decades has been subject to an accelerated depletion. Several reports in the media may now leave the impression that we are at the threshold for a smooth transition from FFs to renewables (solar and wind). However, how does this measure up against hard data? The Renewables (Solar and Wind)Perhaps it was from studying a similar chart that a speaker at the recent Offshore Northern Seas 2014 (ONS 2014) in Stavanger, Norway and according to a media headline made the bold statement;”The fossil dinosaurs will go extinct” (in Norwegian). (With the term “dinosaurs” it is here believed the speaker referred to the fossil fuels industry.) The speaker will with time be proven right, but demonstrates simultaneously a complete lack of comprehension of what the statement entails and thus ignorance of the powers of FFs. I am all for renewable energy (I live in a country that presently gets around two thirds of its energy consumption from hydroelectricity and which is one of the worlds biggest exporters of oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectricity). No doubt renewable energy will have a role in our future, but the extent of its role is subject to much (heated) debate. For those that closely have followed my posts (primarily at The Oil Drum and here at Fractional Flow) will have found that recently I have focused on some recurrent themes; oil (FF) prices/costs, total global debt levels, interest rates, consumers’ affordability, fossil fuel companies’ financial health, central banks’ policies (most important the Federal Reserve Bank [FRB]), and some more. By carefully studying the recent years growth in consumption and installations of renewables (solar and wind) one will observe that their growth occured as total global debt grew strongly, interest rates were lowered and kept low (to allow for growth in total debt) and some governments allowed for competitive advantages for renewables. Despite all the technological improvements for renewables that has brought their costs down (and further improvements are likely to follow), renewables are, like FFs, also at the mercy of consumers’ affordability. The Race between Fossil Fuels and Renewables By putting the growth between FFs and renewables into a perspective, it demonstrates how dependent our economies, our wealth and well beings are upon FFs. Looking at the growth in total FFs versus renewables consumption since 1990 we should now ask ourselves if we truly are prepared to wean ourselves completely of FFs and transition into a life within an energy budget made up from only renewables (refer also figure 1). In 2013 an estimated 20% of the world’s total energy consumption came from biomass, hydroelectricity, solar and wind. From 2012 to 2013 global FFs consumption grew more than what total global consumption of solar and wind was in 2013 (this according to data from BP Statistical Review 2014). It is highly likely that the Earth’s climate has been/is affected from growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) from an accelerated growth in FF consumption. That has led some to start looking at the wording for fossil fuel consumption because, and as is well known, words projects a lot of power. Some alternative references are fossil carbon (which refers to our legacy of fossil/ancient sunlight)….to “fossil f***”. So there it is in plain sight; We are likely damned if we pursue historical trajectories of FF consumption and damned if we don’t. .. “Energy is indistinguishable from magic.”