The world can stop using oil and natural gas in 10 years, to be replaced by other energy sources, notably renewables.
Some people are advocating a ‘get off fossil fuel’ agenda, even suggesting we can and must eliminate the use of oil, natural gas and coal by the end of this decade. However, the numbers simply don’t add up.
It’s true the world’s energy mix is shifting, with ever-increasing use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro. This is good: a wide range of energy choices that, over time, will drive down global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is desirable. But the world’s need for oil and natural gas will continue for decades due to rising energy demand as both populations and standards of living increase. And for some industries, there’s no reasonable replacement for oil and natural gas (especially in the petrochemical industry, which produces thousands of essential products we use every day). Also, there are limitations to how much energy can actually be produced from renewable sources.
Fortunately, there are realistic solutions that allow for both the energy security the world needs and the GHG reductions required to address climate concerns.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a respected organization that analyzes trends in the energy industry. In November 2019, the IEA released its annual World Energy Outlook, which looks at potential energy production and demand under a number of scenarios that explore different possible futures and the actions that may bring them about.
The IEA’s Stated Policies Scenario projects energy production and consumption based on current and proposed policies to curb GHGs. Under that scenario, global energy demand will grow 24 percent by 2040. Oil and natural gas demand will also grow, and will continue to supply 64 per cent of the world’s energy needs.
Sustainable does not mean fossil free
Meanwhile, the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) maps out a way to meet sustainable energy goals aligned with the Paris Agreement’s outline of emissions cuts needed to keep global warming “well below” the 2 degrees Celsius margin—considered key in preventing catastrophic climate change events.
Under the SDS, the IEA projects that “… determined policy interventions would lead to a peak in global oil demand within the next few years. The report attributes this decline to broad adoption of electric vehicles, which could account for half the global fleet of cars and urban buses by 2040.
But even under SDS, the IEA notes a global increase in oil demand by almost three million barrels per day (MMb/d) by 2040, largely due to the need for petrochemical feedstocks.
Overall, the SDS scenario envisions oil and natural gas continuing to supply 47 per cent – almost half — of the world’s energy needs by 2040. Notably, the IEA does not envision a fossil fuel free world — certainly not within the next 10 years or even the next 20. The report concludes, “The breadth of the world’s energy needs means there are no simple or single solutions.”
Importantly, the SDS accepts that oil and natural gas can be part of the solution — through innovations that reduce GHG emissions associated with these fuels. Technologies like carbon capture and utilization are identified as having a critical role in allowing the world to meet its energy needs while addressing the challenge of climate change.
Limits to renewables
In addition, the laws of physics place certain limits to how much energy we can plausibly produce from renewable sources in the coming decades. A 2019 report by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking, says, “While there is a worldwide groundswell to replace hydrocarbons with renewable energies — sooner rather than later — do physical realities support such a revolutionary change? The short answer is no.”
According to the report, solar technologies will continue to become cheaper and more efficient. But the physics boundary for silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells (the Shockley-Queisser Limit) is a maximum conversion of 34 per cent of sunlight energy (photons) into electricity (electrons); currently the best commercial PV technology converts about 26 per cent of the sun’s energy to electricity. Similarly, the physics boundary for a wind turbine (the Betz Limit) is a maximum capture of 60 per cent of kinetic energy in moving air; commercial turbines today convert about 40 per cent.
Further, the report says, “The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could store three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand. Meanwhile, 50 to 100 pounds of materials are mined, moved, and processed for every pound of battery produced.”
In short, the world has a long road ahead to accomplish significant reliance on renewable energy sources in preference to oil and natural gas.
The bottom line:
Switching current modes of energy generation and consumption means replacing existing infrastructure or building new infrastructure, such as solar and wind generation arrays, transmission lines to carry electricity to where it’s needed, building vehicle recharging stations, and so on. In some cases this will mean the design of new technologies or further developing current technologies that are not yet available to the mass market.
These technologies and infrastructure must be designed, tested and built, a process that takes time and, ironically, more resources. In addition, moving forward on some technologies could have unintended environmental impacts. As an example, currently the global supply of lithium (needed to make batteries for electric vehicles and storing energy from intermittent renewable sources) is limited, and lithium mining and extraction have environmental consequences.
The bottom line: changes to the global energy mix will be an evolution, not a revolution, and sustainable, low-carbon oil and natural gas needs to be part of the solution.