Monday, March 16, 2015

No Alternative

We can divest from fossil fuel companies.

We can refuse to build pipelines to transport oil and gas.

We can buy all the electric and hybrid cars we want.

We can encourage people to conserve energy and use alternative sources as much as possible.

But the reality is that we will continue to rely on fossil fuels to provide most of our energy needs for the foreseeable future.

Matt Ridley lays out the reasons why in an article that appeared in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Fossil Fuels Will Save the World (Really):

The environmental movement has advanced three arguments in recent years for giving up fossil fuels: (1) that we will soon run out of them anyway; (2) that alternative sources of energy will price them out of the marketplace; and (3) that we cannot afford the climate consequences of burning them.

These days, not one of the three arguments is looking very healthy. In fact, a more realistic assessment of our energy and environmental situation suggests that, for decades to come, we will continue to rely overwhelmingly on the fossil fuels that have contributed so dramatically to the world’s prosperity and progress.

In 2013, about 87% of the energy that the world consumed came from fossil fuels, a figure that—remarkably—was unchanged from 10 years before. This roughly divides into three categories of fuel and three categories of use: oil used mainly for transport, gas used mainly for heating, and coal used mainly for electricity.

Ridley takes on and refutes each of the arguments against fossil fuel.

The argument that fossil fuels will soon run out is dead, at least for a while. The collapse of the price of oil over the past six months is the result of abundance: an inevitable consequence of the high oil prices of recent years, which stimulated innovation in hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, seismology and information technology. The U.S.—the country with the oldest and most developed hydrocarbon fields—has found itself once again, surprisingly, at the top of the energy-producing league, rivaling Saudi Arabia in oil and Russia in gas.

The shale genie is now out of the bottle. Even if the current low price drives out some high-cost oil producers—in the North Sea, Canada, Russia, Iran and offshore, as well as in America—shale drillers can step back in whenever the price rebounds. As Mark Hill of Allegro Development Corporation argued last week, the frackers are currently experiencing their own version of Moore’s law: a rapid fall in the cost and time it takes to drill a well, along with a rapid rise in the volume of hydrocarbons they are able to extract.

So we aren't running out of fossil fuels anytime soon. What about those wonderful alternative sources we hear so much about?

The second argument for giving up fossil fuels is that new rivals will shortly price them out of the market. But it is not happening. The great hope has long been nuclear energy, but even if there is a rush to build new nuclear power stations over the next few years, most will simply replace old ones due to close. The world’s nuclear output is down from 6% of world energy consumption in 2003 to 4% today. It is forecast to inch back up to just 6.7% by 2035, according the Energy Information Administration.

Nuclear’s problem is cost. In meeting the safety concerns of environmentalists, politicians and regulators added requirements for extra concrete, steel and pipework, and even more for extra lawyers, paperwork and time. The effect was to make nuclear plants into huge and lengthy boondoggles with no competition or experimentation to drive down costs. Nuclear is now able to compete with fossil fuels only when it is subsidized.

As for renewable energy, hydroelectric is the biggest and cheapest supplier, but it has the least capacity for expansion. Technologies that tap the energy of waves and tides remain unaffordable and impractical, and most experts think that this won’t change in a hurry. Geothermal is a minor player for now. And bioenergy—that is, wood, ethanol made from corn or sugar cane, or diesel made from palm oil—is proving an ecological disaster: It encourages deforestation and food-price hikes that cause devastation among the world’s poor, and per unit of energy produced, it creates even more carbon dioxide than coal.

Wind power, for all the public money spent on its expansion, has inched up to—wait for it—1% of world energy consumption in 2013. Solar, for all the hype, has not even managed that: If we round to the nearest whole number, it accounts for 0% of world energy consumption.

So they're not ready for prime time and no one can predict when they would be.

And when it comes to climate change, Ridley advises that we carefully weigh the benefits that fossil fuels provide against the potential threat of a warming planet.

If these conclusions are right, they would explain the failure of the Earth’s surface to warm nearly as fast as predicted over the past 35 years, a time when—despite carbon-dioxide levels rising faster than expected—the warming rate has never reached even two-tenths of a degree per decade and has slowed down to virtually nothing in the past 15 to 20 years. This is one reason the latest IPCC report did not give a “best estimate” of sensitivity and why it lowered its estimate of near-term warming.

Most climate scientists remain reluctant to abandon the models and take the view that the current “hiatus” has merely delayed rapid warming. A turning point to dangerously rapid warming could be around the corner, even though it should have shown up by now. So it would be wise to do something to cut our emissions, so long as that something does not hurt the poor and those struggling to reach a modern standard of living.

So in conclusion:

We should encourage the switch from coal to gas in the generation of electricity, provide incentives for energy efficiency, get nuclear power back on track and keep developing solar power and electricity storage. We should also invest in research on ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the air, by fertilizing the ocean or fixing it through carbon capture and storage. Those measures all make sense. And there is every reason to promote open-ended research to find some unexpected new energy technology.

The one thing that will not work is the one thing that the environmental movement insists upon: subsidizing wealthy crony capitalists to build low-density, low-output, capital-intensive, land-hungry renewable energy schemes, while telling the poor to give up the dream of getting richer through fossil fuels.

We make not like fossil fuels and wish that we didn't have to depend on them. But they have provided the energy that has allowed our civilization to make remarkable advances in the last couple of hundred years and they will continue to do so in the future.