Issue No2: The World Needs to Quickly Stop Using Fossil Fuels….Not So Fast!

Authors Note: To view the charts, read this article on a large screen. And, if you'd prefer to listen instead, click on the green arrow above.

In Issue No1, I provided an overview why we need an orderly and all-encompassing strategy to eventually achieve a shared goal of a fossil free world. It focused only on the transportation sector. This article focuses on the electrical generation sector. Between the 2, they represent roughly 70% of global CO2 emissions. I assure you that you’re in for some big surprises in this article.

As I stated in Issue No1, accomplishing this quickly is impossible due to its complexity, lack and scale of new fuel substitutes and expense. Fossil fuel is used in every country on the planet for creating heat/electricity, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, construction, and many other needs. Secondly, each sovereign country has their own interpretation of their environmental urgency, financial capability, national security issues, ready access to replacement energy source and infrastructure requirements. COVID-19 exemplified this point. A globally unified approach to managing the pandemic was naïve. Let’s learn this point and move on.

I’m going to repeat a few charts for perspective. It illustrates the role of electricity/heat in the major emitting countries.

For background, the Top 10 countries cause roughly 66% of the emissions. You’ll note that China (26.1%), USA (12.6%), EU (26 countries — 7.5%), India (7%) and Russia (5%) represent roughly 58% of the total emissions.

China, India and Russia (41% of the total emissions) have agreed to nothing binding and are non-committal to reductions anytime soon. For instance, China and India continue to build new coal blast furnaces.

I like the detailed presentation below, and it likely hasn’t changed significantly from 2017. Let me provide you with a quick example of how to use it. The left stacked bar shows that petroleum constituted 37% of all sourced energy types and 72% was used in the transportation sector. Conversely, petroleum contributed 92% for all the energy requirements in the transportation sector.

A couple of quick findings:

· Transportation is VERY (92%) dependent on oil.

· Coal has virtually no role except for electric power generation and it’s in rapid decline in the US. More to come on this point.

· Nuclear power is the only “one-trick pony” with 100% its contribution directed at creating electricity.

· Natural gas and renewables are both similar in their flexibility to service multiple energy sectors.

Electrical Generation

Let’s take a closer look at the US market. The charts below illustrate several significant trends. Let’s begin with the left-hand chart.

· The demise of coal. But, you’ll read later that that’s not case in many other countries. In the US, natural gas (re: Fossil Gas) is rapidly replacing it.

· Petroleum (Re: “All others”) is a minor player and will soon be completely replaced.

· Nuclear power is a safe and dependable contributor and a non-emitter.

· Renewables include hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass ranked in that order.

· Based on the right-hand chart, the US electricity production sector has made a significant reduction in emissions of roughly 25% in relatively short period.

· Based on the same chart, coal’s total demise would reduce emissions by an extraordinary 80%. It’s important to note that this reduction would have been miniscule if the substitution of natural gas had not been available.

Source: US Energy Information Agency

Nuclear Energy

The industry should be regarded as an important future American energy resource, rather than be pilloried by naysayers who mis-label it. Their concerns don’t match the reality. Globally, there have been 2 major reactor accidents in the 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of operation. Chernobyl (Russia — 1986) was the result of sloppy planning and oversight, and Fukushima Daiichi (Japan — 2011) was caused by a violent 9.0 undersea earthquake and resulting in a massive 45-foot tsunami with very little radioactivity released.

In 1979, an accident occurred at Three Mile Island (US) which caused much fear, but no deaths or long-lasting health impact. However, it’s real importance was the public relations damage it did to the industry in America. This real event, combined with the coincidental release (2 weeks before the real incident) of the fictitious movie China Syndrome closed the book on the industry for many Americans for decades. Most Americans under the age of 50, have been raised believing nuclear energy is unsafe and are unfortunately furthering the myth with their children.

This is the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada. The actual structure requires roughly 40 miles of tunnels inside the mountain range in the center of the photo.

The cynics are robotic in making their case. After claiming the industry is dangerous, they next will predictably respond with the radioactive waste issue. You only need to Google “Yucca Mountain Repository” and you’ll read about how politics and the environment make for a bad couple. After years of in-depth research, the project to build a national waste storage facility was finally approved in 2002. By 2008, it was one of the most studied pieces of geology in the world and $12 billion was invested in the project by the Federal government with another $32 billion from the industry. It was fully funded, 90% engineered, 50% completed and shut down in 2010. A 2012 Blue Ribbon Committee was established by the Obama administration and released their report which detailed an urgent need for a repository, but Yucca Mountain continued to be met with strong opposition by state officials. The Trump administration continually blocked any new Federal funding for re-opening discussions on the site. Safe storage isn’t the issue, politicians are.

In 2022, there are 93 active American nuclear plants in 28 states which comprise nearly 50% of US emission-free electric generation. More plants have been added recently and more are planned. Today there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries, generating about 10% of the world’s electricity. This 2019 chart illustrates the importance of nuclear power to the energy mix in these countries. The 3-year difference explains the numbers not matching.

Source: Foro Nuclear with data from PRIS-OEIA

As of January 2022, there are 55 reactors under construction in 19 countries.

About 100 power reactors are on order or planned, and over 300 more are proposed.

Most reactors currently planned are in Asia, with fast-growing economies and rapidly rising electricity demand. Most nuclear power plants originally had an operating lifetime of 25 to 40 years, but engineering assessments have established that many can operate longer. By the end of 2016, the National Regulatory Commission had granted license renewals to over 85 reactors, extending their operating lifetimes from 40 to 60 years.

France, whose 58 reactors generate 70 percent of its electricity, has safely recycled nuclear fuel for decades. They turned to nuclear power in the 1970s to smartly limit their dependence on foreign energy. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear fuel recycling process involves converting spent plutonium, formed in nuclear power reactors as a by-product of burning uranium fuel, and uranium into a “mixed oxide” (MOX) that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity.

The Orano La Hague reprocessing facility. More than 34,000 metric tons of used fuel has been treated here since the site’s operation in 1976. (Photo: Orano)

“The recycling of spent fuel is a major element of the strategy of the French nuclear sector, which has more than 30 years of industrial experience,” says Denis Lépée, Senior Vice President and Head of the Nuclear Fuel Division at EDF, the French electric utility company that operates the country’s nuclear power plants.

China and Russia recycle nuclear waste as well. In early 2022 it was reported that over the next 15 years, China has claimed to be investing $440 billion in nuclear infrastructure development. Because once you solve the nuclear waste problem, anything is possible.

Most Americans are probably under the impression that this industry dead, which is not the case. This is the cleanest and most dependable 24/7 energy source available in the world. No renewable energy source can challenge this claim. Repositories, constructed to store the large quantities of non-recycled nuclear waste is probably an outdated idea.

As an aside, the US navy has 83 nuclear powered ships including 72 submarines and 10 aircraft carriers. They launched their first nuclear powered ship in 1961, 60 years ago and have had no serious events.

Natural Gas

This is a cheap, abundant, less environmently harmful carbon emitter and the US is one of the world’s largest producers and has the largest reserves. As previous charts have already illustrated, natural gas is a very flexible energy source and currently a very important energy generator in numerous sectors.

Yes, it is a fossil fuel and therefore will be eventually marginalized as other cleaner options become easily accessed in the required energy equivalents. The chart above shows the dependency of important sectors of both our and the world’s economy. Its near-term future is very bright because of all the points made previously in my opening sentence. It will be the go-to substitute in many applications that use oil and coal.

The chart below reinforces my points about US dominance and its near-term positive outlook. Even though this chart, as have virtually all of those I’ve reviewed while researching for this article, shows a rolling over process occurring beginning in maybe 15–20 years. But note that the amount of natural gas forecasted to be produced in 2050 is probably twice that of today’s totals.

World Natural Gas 2018–2050: World Energy Annual Report (Part 3) /Seeking Alpha

Coal

For American readers who would assume the global use of coal to be like the US, you will be shocked by the next 2 charts below. They really speak for themselves and makes any realistic person question this myth that the planet is going to be free of fossil fuels anytime soon. The first chart shows coal’s dominant role in China and this forecast shows that roughly, as a percentage, half of their electrical generation will continue to originate from coal in 2040. However, on a unit’s generated basis, their usage of coal is barely changed. Any wonder why they aren’t signing up for anything bindable regarding their CO2 emissions?

Source: US Energy Information Agency (EIA)

The next chart illustrates coal’s importance in other countries. Again, the numbers speak for themselves.

Renewables

This is defined as any form of energy available in the natural environment, it can be replenished repeatedly and doesn’t release CO2. In contrast, fossil fuel resources constantly decrease. Renewable energy is supplying less than 16% of the total energy that we’re currently consuming in the world (Dec 2021). Existing hydroelectric power is the top source accounting for roughly 75% of that total. So, excluding hydroelectric power, renewables account for less than 4% of global electric power generation. And recently, soaring prices for commodities, shipping, and energy all threaten the previously rosy outlook for many renewables. For example, the cost of polysilicon used to make solar panels has more than quadrupled since the start of 2020, according to the IEA. Investment costs for utility-scale onshore wind and solar farms have risen 25 percent compared to 2019. That could delay the completion of new renewable energy projects that have already been contracted. Hopefully, these negatives will turn out to be temporary.

Here are the 7 types of renewable energy sources. You’ll note that 4 are dependent on oil-based lubricants due their use of turbines:

Solar — Generally speaking, it’s the only type of renewable energy used residentially. Most readers are well acquainted with this source.

Wind — Again, most readers understand this source. Large turbines are constructed in dependable high-wind zones organized in farms located in offshore or rural areas. The UK is generating around 24% of their electricity with wind.

A North Sea wind farm

The well documented negatives include wildlife destruction, unattractive visual appearance, and unsustainable performance. Here’s something less known. According to a 2017 CNBC article, there are 341,000 installed wind turbines worldwide. Each require on average 80 gallons of a specific synthetic oil-based lubricant that must be replaced annually.

Note all of the motors/mechanical components contained in a turbine requiring lubrication.

That’s 27.3 million gallons in just one year and that was 5 years ago. Based on the generated power forecasts, the industry will triple in the next 20–30 years. That equates to 75–100 million gallons per year. Additionally, most turbine blades are made with fiberglass-reinforced polyester or epoxy. Carbon fiber or aramid (Kevlar) is also used as reinforcement material. These petroleum-based materials are chosen for their lightweight and durability characteristics.

Hydroelectric — It is like wind energy technology except for using water instead of air. Building large dams and using massive turbines is expensive, but it will produce a great amount of dependable electricity for many years. The industry is roughly 100 years old and has a very safe track record and a positive outlook. According to Energy.gov, there are roughly 2,200 hydropower dams generate about 12 percent of the US electricity. Like wind, any turbine-based technology uses oil as a required lubricant.

Three Gorges Dam, China is the world’s largest hydroelectric facility.

Geothermal –It is the heat within the planet earth that can be harnessed in some areas. Having just visited Iceland in 2021, which is a geological powder keg, I was surprised to learn that roughly 25%, and growing, of their electricity is created from this source. Again, this is a turbine dependent technology requiring an oil based lubricant.

A geothermal plant in Iceland.

Biomass — It is a plant-based material used as fuel to produce electricity. We use four types today — wood and agricultural products, solid waste, landfill gas and biogas, and alcohol fuels (like Ethanol or Biodiesel). Most biomass used today is home grown energy. Wood — logs, chips, bark, and sawdust — accounts for about half of biomass energy. It is a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels because it can be produced from renewable sources, such as plants and waste, that can be continuously replenished. Most electricity generated from biomass is produced by direct combustion. Biomass is burned in a boiler to produce high-pressure steam. This steam flows over a series of turbine blades, causing them to rotate. The rotation of the turbine drives a generator, producing electricity. Again, turbines need an oil-based lubricant.

Tidal — Also, known as ocean energy, is the hydropower energy we can get from tides, which is more predictable and consistent than wind or solar energy. This energy is sometimes sorted under the category of hydropower, not in a separate one. Because water is denser than air, tidal energy is more powerful than wind and energy, producing more power at the same turbine diameter and rotor speed. The negatives include ecosystem impact and high costs. The US has no tidal plants and only limited locations where it could affordably function. As of 2021, there are only 8 installed plants, so it is a small, but growing option. Again, wildlife destruction is a tough issue. These turbines also need an oil-based lubricant.

This visual shows 4 types of tidal energy generation.

Hydrogen — It’s the most abundant element available on our planet, two-thirds of which in the form of water. Hydrogen is not a source of energy per se, rather it’s a versatile energy carrier that can store and deliver usable energy. If we can separate this element, hydrogen fuel is a zero-carbon fuel burned with oxygen; if it is created in a process that does not involve carbon. It can be used in fuel cells or internal combustion engines and produce zero vehicle emissions other than water vapor. Fuel economy equivalent to about twice that of gasoline vehicles. Toyota and Honda already have hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road in the US. Like EV’s they require their own charging locations. European Union (EU) proponents claim hydrogen is their future fuel, promising to deliver an abundance of carbon-neutral energy by 2030. Additionally, they claim it will eventually power long haul freight vehicles, airplanes, steel production and domestic heating. But this space-age technology is expensive.

A freestanding closed loop hydrogen plant using its own sustainable energy sources.

So, how quickly will these renewable energies begin to make a meaningful contribution in reducing the role of fossil fuels? It depends on who you ask. I’ve examined many forecasts and can’t fairly represent any single source as THE most accurate. Rather, I’m going to show you 3 estimates using the same timeline but different sources.

The first chart was produced by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), a department of the Federal government that was created in 1977. They are “responsible for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets and public understanding of energy and it’s in a reaction with the economy and the environment”. They forecast that renewables will double their current US market share and will provide 38% of our needed energy in 2050. I chose to use their US forecast to contrast the next 2 charts global version.

Source: Researchgate

The 2nd chart is from both the BloombergNEF whose “analysis helps you gain a clear perspective on global commodity markets and the disruptive technology striving the transition to a low carbon economy” and the International Energy Association (IEA) whose mission is to work with “governments and industry to shape a secure and sustainable energy future for all”. The IEA was founded in 1974 and is headquartered in France.

Its global membership includes all the major economies with the notable exception of China, Russia, and India, who are collectively responsible for roughly 41% of all global emissions.

As I mentioned in my Issue 1, they’re continuing to build coal burning plants. Given Russia’s oil/gas economic dependency, does anyone think that Putin is serious about any of this? His economy is massively reliant on the oil/gas industry. Without a very quick 180-degree reversal of their national energy policies, the chart below is a fantasy.

The 3rd chart is produced by Renewables Now who describes themselves as an “independent one-stop shop for business news and market intelligence for the global renewable energy industry”. They are also based in France and provide “high-quality news coverage with searchable archive running 9 years back”. The organizations very name implies bias.

Source: Renewables New

Both of the last 2 charts are heavily betting that wind and solar will be roughly 50% of the mix, which seems impractical, given that both produce an unpredictable stream of energy due to their reliance on the uncontrollable dynamics associated with weather. As the chart below illustrates, in the history of global energy, there’s no similar dynamic shift in new energy sources in only 30 years. Not even close. The addition of coal in the mid-1860’s energy mix represented a minimal infrastructural shift from burning wood which is the relevant charted biofuel. For instance, in 100 years natural gas/oil has gone from zero to roughly 50% in 2020. Both of the latter charts have solar and wind going from a roughly 3% contributor to 50% in just 30 years!

Source: Penn State University; Energy, Environmental, And Our Future

Summary

If you’re still reading, thank you. I’ve attempted to provide you with enough details regarding why this transition can’t happen as quickly as many believe. One irrational and very politically driven issue is the hostile treatment of American oil/natural gas producers. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the world oil/gas markets perfectly exemplifies why America needs to be 100% energy independent. According to AAA, average US gasoline prices have jumped from $2.17 in 2020 to $4.08 as of March 8. 1n 2021, the US imported $4.7 billion of Russian oil and gas, the highest amount in 10 years. It represents 3% of our oil and 8% of our domestic needs. This is absurd!

The US went from a net exporter of oil a little over a year ago to having to ask OPEC to increase their oil production last summer and accessing our Strategic Oil Reserve beginning last November. We’re even asking the corrupt Venezuelan government for help! This is a self-inflicted disaster. We desperately need a secure dependable domestic source of these fuels for all the reasons I’ve previously stated. There’s similar shortsightedness in Europe as well. For more detail see Issue 1.

We need to establish a clear strategy to coordinate a sequential US attack plan that methodically identifies near-term next steps and avoids counterproductive missteps that we’re currently watching on the global stage. Accelerating the replacement of natural gas for oil is an example of a very doable positive steppingstone to have an impact on carbon emissions. We need a bipartisan panel of retired politicians, scientists and university professors with relevant backgrounds and energy producers to objectively lead this process. This is no place for reality-blinded zealots or self-serving charlatans.

Issue 3 will be focused on plastics, which require oil and natural gas.

Thanks for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, please click on the clapping hands below. And, if you want to follow me, click on the green button. If you’d like to sign up to become a regular member, it will cost you only $5 per month and provides unlimited access to all the content on Medium. Here’s a link for you to sign up: https://medium.com/@ric62551/membership

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A curious retired American interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625

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Rick Margin

Rick Margin

A curious retired American interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625

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