The thousands of young climate change activists in more than 100 countries who played hooky to march to save the climate on March 15 were vague on their definition of “renewable” energy.
That’s hardly the kids’ fault: the marches were driven by politicians, the press, and environmentalists who display mass hysteria about the need to use renewable energy and pursue some idealized Green New Deal to fight catastrophic, purportedly human-caused climate change, so this lack of clarity should not be surprising.
The term “renewable” in all these cases does not refer to energy in its totality, but just “electricity.” Wind and solar farms can only produce electricity, and even that is intermittent, needing the wind to blow or the sun to shine, or both, continually from Oslo in the North to Christchurch in the Southern Hemisphere. This is not going to happen. Electricity is limited in its ability to energize (no pun intended) societies around the world.
Until we find an alternate energy, some magical elixir to replace current reliable energy sources, we should honestly acknowledge every industry and all infrastructure are reliant on energy from deep-earth minerals and fuels. Global economies increase, not decrease, their use of fossil fuels each year.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates coal use will peak sometime around 2023 and stabilize or modestly decline thereafter. And although the use of renewables will continue to grow, with even nuclear power growing modestly, petroleum and natural gas will dominate energy use through 2040 and beyond (see figure).
The constant drive for fuel efficiency and conservation has slowed the increase in the use of energy, as reflected in slight uptick of the EIA curves for fossil fuels even as billions of people from China and India are beginning to enjoy lifestyles like those in developed countries.
Necessity of Fossil Fuels
Automobiles of today are much more efficient than clunkers from the early 1900s and gas guzzlers from the late 1980s. That’s the good news. However, we have many more cars and trucks on the road.
Electricity can charge my iPhone, light my TV, and power my computer, but it cannot manufacture the chemicals, plastics, and other products required to make those phones, TVs, and computers.
Electricity also allows our space program and military operations to improve, but it doesn’t launch spacecraft nor move planes, ships, tanks, and other military vehicles.
Electricity can turn on the lights in your cruise ship cabin, but the cruise liner industry uses around 80,000 gallons of fuel per day, per ship, to accommodate 25 million passengers annually, a number that increases every year.
Electricity powers traffic lights, but road and air travel dominate most peoples’ lives in industrialized countries and emerging markets. Airlines conduct more than 100,000 flights a day around the world. Commercial aviation, with 23,000 commercial airplanes worldwide, consumes more than 225 million gallons of aviation fuels to transport almost 10 million passengers and cargo every day. Aircraft, like automobiles, have improved their efficiency tremendously, but we are and will fly more to accommodate thriving economies around the world.
An electric power grid operating entirely on renewable energy would be unable even to support the two prime movers that have done more for the cause of globalization than any other: the diesel engine and the jet turbine. Both run on petroleum products, and without transportation, there is no commerce.
What About Climate Change?
When discussing the energy used in the last few centuries—taking society from horses and buggies and sailing ships as primary modes of transportation to today’s automobiles, planes, modern ships, and trains—the discussion always turns to the impact of emissions from fossil fuels, the current primary energy sources, on the world’s climate.
During the billions of years the planet has been around, the climate has changed on multiple time scales, globally, regionally, and locally. Ice Ages have occurred at least five times. Obviously, natural forces greater than human activities caused the previous warming cycles that melted the ice, so can humans’ minuscule presence on Earth really be the cause of the next warming cycle?
Until recently, two prominent organizations have been clear on this topic. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States National Climatic Data Center have stated the primary force directly driving climate change is the Sun, which heats the Earth’s oceans and lands. Oceans and land heat the air, not the reverse.
The one constant on Earth is the climate is always changing.
Sharing the Progress
Even as we continue to pursue greater efficiencies and conservation in our daily lives, to use fewer resources and produce less waste for the goods and services we produce, we should recognize “alternative” or renewable energy sources are still a long way from being able to maintain the standard of living people in so-called developed countries have attained, much less uplift the billions of people in undeveloped countries out of poverty and allow them to enhance their lives. They will need coal, the most abundant and cost-effective energy source available today, as well as oil and natural gas, if they are to modernize and leave poverty and premature death behind.
This is a truth the marching kids need to understand. Let reason and facts, not green propaganda, be their guide.
Ronald Stein, P.E. ([email protected]) is founder and ambassador for energy and infrastructure at PTS Advance, headquartered in Irvine, California.