I always find it useful to have a reality check every so often. I often report on the huge uptake of solar wind energy and the evolution of electric vehicles. We report on a variety of clean energy advances. Then we have the following sobering graph.
New Energy Technologies
We often report “breakthroughs” in renewable energy technologies. We await improvements in energy storage technology to enable renewables to compete with the convenience of fossil fuels. However there are other energy technology breakthroughs in fossil fuel mining and deployment. Just a couple of years ago everyone was predicting peak oil (including myself) time lines. This is the point in time that the production of oil goes into decline because of shrinking reserves. We were wrong.
Advancements in drilling and oil extraction has now doubled known reserves since 1980. The glut of oil ha seen it plummet from over a $100 a barrel average in the last 4 years to under $50 USD in recent times. This is having a huge impact on economies who are supported by energy exports (like Russia , Australia and the Middle East). The production in the USA alone has increased significantly as they head towards energy independence without the need for political and other intervention into energy rich countries.
New clean coal combustion technologies have also come into play, However the number of coal mines and production capacities exceed the demand. With many countries further committing to solar and wind for power generation, this will have further impacts on coal price and demand.
The Climate Debate
The climate debate has lost a lot of steam as a driver for renewable energy uptake. The real driver is economics. A critical milestone has been met in many countries where renewable energy is a better economic proposition than fossil fuel powered generators. It will be the economic drivers that will ultimately win out over environmental issues. Global warming is still a driver and played an important part in establishing renewable energy in many countries with government subsidies. The subsidies are no longer required.
The Energy Mix
The above chart tells the real story. While many countries like Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Iceland etc are heading towards renewable energy production for electricity, the reality is that it accounts for less than 10% of the worlds energy demand. Oil runs at 32% with 27% being for transport needs. The electric car will never have a huge impact on this demand unless battery and energy storage technologies are improved. Building fast and efficient public transport may improve the equation.
Coal will decline and be replaced with wind, solar and possibly clean nuclear. (Thorium). Wave and geothermal energy is also coming of age and will assist it the reduction of coal powered generators. Countries like China are also putting caps on coal imports and investing heavily in renewables to meet the existing energy demands.
In some countries like Germany the energy demands level for households is lower than 1990 levels. This is also very evident in counties like Australia where some state now have up to 20% PV uptake for households, dramatically reducing the need for fossil fuel generation. This is ironic given the abundance of energy resources in Australia and was brought about y good government policy and subsidies. As the solar and wind technology matured the subsidies are now being removed.
The one alarming statistic in the energy consumption information is the energy imbalance. There are 1.6 billion people without electricity burning 70 billion liters of fossil fuel per year just for lighting. The more prosperous the country the more energy per head of population is needed.
The demand for energy per head of population in countries like the USA and Europe has stabilized. The energy demand in countries like China is growing at an alarming rate. This is due to massive growth in prosperity and the middle class.
The real breakthrough to turn the fossil fuel equation around will be a breakthrough in energy storage for transport. The cost and limitations of batteries for electric cars are still a major hurdle. With fuel prices dropping the new growth in electric vehicle uptake will slow. Should an breakthrough appear it will be truly revolutionary.
As for power generation, fossil fuels are in the decline and this trend will gain momentum