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Want clean energy? We’ll need more fossil fuels 

Credit:  Jim Vinoski | Mar 31, 2023 | forbes.com ~~

Calls for the immediate scaling back and even discontinuation of fossil fuel use have grown strident again recently, on the heels of this month’s release of the final installment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. It spawned urgent rhetoric like that from United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who said, “…it is possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees [Celsius] with rapid and deep emissions reductions across all sectors of the global economy.” His comments were accompanied by yet another round of demands for an immediate halt to funding of any further hydrocarbon investments.

That comes in the wake of last year’s anti-fossil fuel mania, when the news was dominated for weeks by the actions of activists from groups like Just Stop Oil. They made headlines by trying to destroy precious works of art and gluing themselves to roadways, all in the name of fighting climate change through their demand for an immediate transition away from fossil fuels.

Those goals for an immediate break from hydrocarbon use, however, are simply not feasible. Even if the various groups and commentators are right that the world must make a complete transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy, that’s not going to happen in the near future. In 2021, energy from nuclear, wind and solar generation comprised less than 10% of total global energy use. Wind and solar alone accounted for just 3.3% of global energy needs that year. Yes, renewable energy generation had been growing dramatically in the past few decades. However, last year’s energy crisis had Germany announce recently that it’s planning to build up to 21 GW of new gas-fired power-generating capacity in coming years, and China has been building coal-fired plants at an increasing pace.

“We’ll look back at Covid-19 and the fictional Great Reset as peak self-delusion concerning the ability of the global economy to wean itself off fossil fuels,” said Doug Sheridan, Managing Director and founder at EnergyPoint Research, Inc., an independent energy industry research firm. “If there’s one thing the ensuing period has shown, it’s that demands for fossil fuels–and their many derivatives–is both broader and more inelastic than even many seasoned energy sector experts realized.”

There’s an inherent contradiction in those activists’ demands that the world move immediately to clean energy and end the use of hydrocarbons as well. In order to effect a transition to renewables, the world will need to burn more fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, not less.

There are several reasons for this. The main three are the need to manufacture redundant systems, accelerated equipment replacements or conversions, and a huge increase in material demands.

First, part of the reality of building the alternative clean energy generation systems the activists demand is that we’re already constructing and will continue to build entirely redundant power plants. We’re not only building for increased energy demands; we’re building to electrify everything that’s currently powered by fossil fuels. But the only way to build most of that for the foreseeable future is by using hydrocarbons, to power the factories that make the necessary new equipment, and for the machines that clear the land and mine the needed minerals and construct the new generating systems. The paradox inherent in constructing those clean power systems is that it necessarily increases fossil fuel use for years to come. (And there’s the additional problem that we’ll continue to need, for many years yet, all those fossil fuel generating plants as backup for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. The often-touted battery backup storage technology simply doesn’t exist at scale yet, and it’s unlikely that we’re going to all nuclear. In fact, that’s the very reason Germany is building the new gas plants mentioned earlier.)

But wait a minute, you might say–won’t we be building the electrified plants and equipment that will then build those generating plants? Arguably yes–but therein lies our second increased demand for fossil fuels. The faster we go toward replacing existing fossil-fuel-burning manufacturing systems and construction vehicles, the more fossil fuels we’ll need to make them. Only a small portion of our existing industrial plants or mining and construction vehicles and operations run on electricity today. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of 2021, just 9% of industry was powered by renewables. But accelerating their replacement can only mean burning more fossil fuels to get there. Yes, in that ideal future electrified scenario, there will eventually be a tipping point beyond which the electrically powered equipment predominates. But given the need to electrify tens of thousands of factories and millions of heavy-duty vehicles worldwide to get there, that tipping point will take many years to reach.

Finally, something that’s recently been hitting home for many people is how the much-touted electrified systems of the future, by their very nature, will cause a vast increase in demand for metals and materials to make them. There’s been a focus on the impact a rapid transition to EVs would have in that regard, but what’s missing from the discussion is that the same raw materials will be required to electrify mining, manufacturing, and energy generation. According to a recent International Energy Association (IEA) analysis, by 2040 the demand for lithium alone could grow by as much as 40 times over today’s usage. Those increased material demands only add to the previously stated drivers for increased use of fossil fuels. Again, because there is so little existing electrification in the mining industry and the manufacturing facilities that extract and process those needed minerals, it will take many years of additional fossil fuel use to fulfill the demands for them. (Whether it’s even remotely possible is a whole other question; the same IEA report indicates that global capital expenditures would have to rise by almost 400% to achieve its stated electrification aims.)

The reactions to the largely self-inflicted energy crisis threatening Europe right now show that people aren’t willing to sacrifice their own energy security. Meanwhile, in the developing nations, populations are pushing forward toward mimicking the lifestyles of those of us blessed enough to live in the wealthier parts of the world–and who can blame them? That means the underlying day-to-day demand for energy, and by virtue of how most of it is generated today, for fossil fuel consumption, is also rising.

Here are the realistic world scenarios for at least the next decade: If you believe we should just stick with fossil fuels and adjust to whatever the climate throws our way, global demand for fossil fuels will rise, simply due to rising global demand. If you want a measured transition to cleaner energy, even one with a mix of fuels being used long-term, fossil fuel demand will rise even more than that. And if you desire as rapid a transition to a fully electrified energy ecosystem as is humanly possible, then worldwide demand for fossil fuels will grow further still.

As the brief Texas winter storm in 2021 showed, with its death toll of at least 246 people, lack of reliable energy can kill people. The only alternative to the scenarios outlined above is, and the one the activists are urging, is to begin cutting back fossil fuel immediately, turning our back on reliable energy generation. That option would be both criminally inhumane and, as Europe has shown, politically unsustainable.

Source:  Jim Vinoski | Mar 31, 2023 | forbes.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial educational effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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