12 realities on energy change from an energy realist – part 3

Dr. Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba is one of the most respected voices on the topic of energy. In fact, the headline in a March 2018 edition of Science magazine invited readers to: “Meet Vaclav Smil, the man who has quietly shaped how the world thinks about energy.”

Dr Smil. Photo by: Olibroman at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0


Truths and trials of global energy change


In part 3 of this three-part blog series, we continue to draw from Dr. Smil’s paper Examining Energy Transitions: A Dozen Insights Based on Performance to explore the real challenges of changing global primary energy supply. (University of Manitoba. 2016.). We pick up at point 9, again with the aim of relaying Dr. Smil’s work in lay terms. If you missed part 1 or part 2, catch up now.

  1. Because wind and solar generation are weather dependent, they’re intermittent (or unreliable). That means countries also need to maintain large fossil-fueled reserve capacities*, virtually doubling their total installed power. (*Reserve capacity is energy capacity that is over and above what’s needed to meet normal peak demand levels. It is used as ‘insurance’ against breakdowns or if demand rises above normal peak capacity.)
    • Germany is the most prominent example of the persistence of carbon fuels. The country began a large-scale energy change in 2000. By 2014, fossil-fueled generating capacity had actually increased four per cent– from 84.2 to 87.5 gigawatts. Over the same period, the combined capacity of renewable generation went from 6.2 to 84.8 gigawatts, almost reaching a level matching that of the fossil-fueled generators.
    • So, increased reliance on intermittent energy sources with low average capacity factors for generating power requires countries to maintain fossil-fueled capacity of the same – or even slightly higher – magnitude.


  2. Even the fastest conceivable adoption of non-carbon energies will fall far short of eliminating fossil fuel combustion by the middle of the 21st century.
    • Recent forecasts published by governments, institutions and companies anticipate that fossil fuels will still supply up to 70 per cent of the world’s primary energy by 2040.
    • Even the scenario for limiting carbon dioxide emissions, proposed by the United Nations Paris Agreement, suggests at least a 60 per cent share for coal and hydrocarbons, and 29 per cent for all renewables, including hydro and all biomass.
    • None of the published forecasts or scenarios puts modern or ‘new’ renewables (wind, solar and modern biofuels) at more than 15 per cent by 2040, a growth rate that’s in line with the pace of previous primary energy changes.


  3. Replacing fossil-fueled electricity generation with new renewables is much easier than displacing liquid fossil fuels to meet demand from transportation.
    • Even after the U.S. diverted 40 per cent of its most important crop (grain corn) to produce ethanol for automotive fuel, the annual output of ethanol is an equivalent of only 10 per cent of the country’s gasoline consumption.
    • Except for Brazil (with its sugarcane), no other country could divert so much of its largest crop (or agricultural land) to energy use without risking food supply or its ability to export food.
    • Based on current production, biofuels from non-food biomass (such as corn stalks and husks, or waste fibres left over from sugar cane processing) are still a long way from meeting transportation demand.


  4. An even greater challenge will be to displace fossil carbon used to produce iron, cement, ammonia and plastics.
    • We now annually produce one billion tonnes of iron (in addition, recycling iron accounts for more than half a billion tonnes of steel produced), more than four billion tonnes of cement, nearly 200 million tonnes of ammonia, and more than 300 million tonnes of plastics – all from fossil fuels.
    • There are no mass-scale alternatives to displace ‘coking coal’. And of the several proposals for producing cement with much lower carbon inputs, none is in commercial operation. (Coking coal is a blend of coal and other hydrocarbons that’s used in blast furnaces to produce some of these essential materials).
    • Ammonia production could forgo its reliance on natural gas only if we had an unprecedented amount of extremely cheap electricity. And, it will take decades for plant feedstocks to be available at rates required to displace hydrocarbons in plastic production.
    • Dr. Smil also emphasizes that construction of infrastructure for many modern or ‘new’ renewables (e.g., wind turbines and solar panels) is highly dependent on such carbon-intensive materials as steel, cement and plastics.


Scale matters


Dr. Smil concludes that replacing our global energy supply system, which relies mostly on fossil fuels, is a task that will occupy us for generations. Even if fuel alternatives were more readily available, Dr. Smil maintains the existing global energy system, based on fossil fuels, comprises the largest, and most expensive infrastructure (such as pipelines). This infrastructure will continue to be needed long into the future, as indicated by the International Energy Agency’s forecast on energy sources and demand, and therefore cannot be written-off or displaced rapidly. The entire system now extracts about 10 billion tonnes of fossil carbon annually, which generates nearly two-thirds of total global electricity.


About Pipelines Blog thanks Dr. Smil for providing us access to his thought-provoking reality check on the pace of change in global energy supply.