Energy Aware #1: There Is No Energy Transition Away From Fossil Fuels

This is the first in a series of posts intended to provide a practical understanding of energy, its central role in human civilization, and a spectrum of realistic options that may exist for our collective future. I do not presume to know the solutions to our planet’s ecological and climate problems. I merely hope to share the knowledge I have gained in over four decades in the energy industry with those who want to become more energy aware.

 

Most people believe that an energy transition is underway in which fossil fuels will be a thing of the past some day.

The number of people who searched Google for the term “energy transition” has increased seven-fold since 2005 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The number of people who have searched Google for “energy transition” has increased 7-fold since 2005. Source: Google Trends & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

More than 30% of Americans favor ending the use of fossil fuels completely.

Even organizations whose core interest is energy talk about an end to fossil fuels in the relatively near term.

“The energy transition is a pathway toward transformation of the global energy sector from fossil-based to zero-carbon by the second half of this century.”
International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)

Many people believe this is possible but it is a fantasy. I say that based on facts, not on any preference or bias.

People believe the fantasy because they want to. That belief is only possible because of energy blindness.

 

There Is No Energy Transition Away from Fossil Fuels

Energy transitions are additive. New energy sources are added to older ones but nothing is replaced (Figure 2).

Biomass (wood, plant material and crop residue) was the principal form of human energy other than food until the 1880s when coal, oil, natural gas and hydroelectricity overtook it. Nevertheless, biomass use did not decrease. In fact, twice as much biomass is used today as it was in 1800.

Figure 2. Energy transitions are additive. No energy source has ever been replaced. Source: Our World in Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Even when we look at energy sources as a percent of total consumption, there is no case for earlier sources being replaced by later ones either. Figure 3 shows the same data that is in Figure 2 except as percentages of total consumption.

The percent of biomass and coal has decreased over time but fossil fuels are not being replaced by renewables, hydroelectric power and nuclear energy. Renewable energy is less than 5% of total world consumption. All non-fossil sources actually declined from 23% of total in 2000 to 21% in 2019.

Figure 3. The percent of biomass and coal has decreased over time. Even on a percentage basis, fossil fuels are not being replace by renewables. Source: Our World in Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The world has been in a continuous energy transition since coal became an alternative to biomass in the 18th century. The introduction of oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, nuclear power and renewables were part of that continuum, not discrete energy transitions. No major form of energy has been replaced or eliminated in the last 200 years.

A new energy transition that will lead to a non-fossil energy future is a belief.

It is a beautiful belief but it is impossible based on everything we know about energy and technology today. All forms of renewable energy production require materials that use substantial amounts of fossil fuels for their mining, transport, processing, manufacture and distribution. Moreover, we know of no way to produce the four pillars of modern civilization—steel, cement, plastic and fertilizer—without fossil fuels.

It may be possible that some of these obstacles can be overcome in the future but almost certainly not in time to make a difference for the ecosystem or the climate.

Lower carbon emissions are critical for the future. That does not mean we can pick a fantasy and make it happen.

Most credible forecasts project that fossil fuel use will decrease over the next 25 years. It is unlikely, however, that they will account for less than about 50% of total energy consumption by 2050.

Fossil energy is fundamental to our way of life, and there is considerable momentum which favors its continued use. Ending or even substantially reducing its consumption would almost certainly lead to painful decreases in living standards and population. Only higher energy prices will cause the behavior change needed to make a difference.

I am not arguing in favor of fossil fuels but simplistic ideas like just ending their use are unrealistic and involve tremendous risk.

Purposeful change requires understanding the facts, events and choices that led to the present state. This suggests that we should become more energy aware.

 



4 Comments

  • Amrit

    Well said, Mr. Berman, and long overdue.

    For the last 50 years American consumers adopted smaller, fuel-efficient cars every time we had an oil shock, but as soon as gasoline prices came down again they went back to giant, gas-guzzlers and forgot all about it. Enormous, heavy wasteful vehicles that mostly carry only a driver. Then came bottled water in throwaway plastic bottles. And throwaway diapers. Throwaway everything, all made from petroleum. The wastefulness of American consumers is based on energy-illiteracy.

    And now the push to totally eliminate fossil fuels with no adequate substitutes in place… this is energy illiteracy in the opposite direction. Energy illiteracy needs to end if we’re to make wiser energy decisions going forward. Thank you for getting the word out.

    • art.berman

      Amrit,

      This is Jevon’s Paradox in action. It is the way that all life is–not just humans. We will never plan. Only trauma results in behavior change.

      All the best,

      Art

  • edward downe

    Well written and timely advice not shared by many.

Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies and asks your personal data to enhance your browsing experience.