Fossil fuels here to stay… for now

Winnipeg | CNS Canada – Renewable sources of energy may be the future, but that future is not coming any time soon as fossil fuels will be needed to continue to power the world for generations, according to author and professor emeritus Vaclav Smil, speaking at the Grain World conference in Winnipeg, Nov. 14.

“We have been, we are, and we will continue to be a largely fossil fuel civilization,” said Smil adding “The idea that this will change by next month, by next year, or by the next decade is totally ridiculous.”

The problem with replacing fossil fuels is largely a matter of scale, according to Smil who spared little in his wide ranging talk that touched on everything from container ships moving “junk from Asia,” the failings of electric-car maker Tesla, typhoons hitting Tokyo, cold Winnipeg winters, and even soil compaction.

From 1950 to 2016 fossil fuels have gone from comprising 98.4 per cent of the world’s energy use to 90.3 per cent, although actual usage still rose dramatically due to increased energy demand overall, according to Smil.

While solar power, wind power, and renewable fuels are all seeing some growth, they still represent less than five per cent of the total world energy use. Smil pointed to historical growth patterns of other energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, showing that each took decades to see their share of total energy usage rise, with each subsequent energy transition slower than the one that came before.

In addition to the generally slow pace of adoption of newer energy sources, Smil also pointed to a number of key fossil fuel uses that have no real viable replacement at present. As examples, the diesel to run ocean freighters, jet fuel for airplanes, coal to create steel, and natural gas to create nitrogen fertilizer are all not close to being replaced by renewable energy, with improvements to current technology by three to four orders of magnitude needed before renewables could replace fossil fuels.

As the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, battery storage capacity also has a long way to go before batteries will be able to meet the demand. In addition, those batteries still need to be created using predominantly fossil fuels.

A combination of pollution concerns and lack of efficiencies will eventually see fossil fuels replaced by cleaner alternatives, “but it will be generations,” said Smil adding that there are many people “waiting in line to burn fossil fuels.”

Infrastructure, even ‘green’ infrastructure, requires steel and concrete, which for now means fossil fuels, said Smil noting that the pace of development seen in China in recent years will soon be replicated in India and then Africa.

With fossil fuel dependence a long term prospect, the only real short-term solutions would be cuts to energy usage by more affluent countries. Currently, Canada sits near the top of the world’s energy consumers, with a per-capita annual energy demand of 350 gigajoules, according to Smil. China, by comparison, sits at 90, India at 20, and Ethiopia at only 2 gigajoules per-capita. Those countries at the lower end of the scale are all looking to move up.

“There are a lot of people waiting in line to burn those dirty fossil fuels, because we have done it and this is how we have become rich and affluent, and how we can afford our standard of living.”

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