The clunky, lagging transition to renewable energy
History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don't have that long, Cobb writes.
No doubt you've heard people speak of an energy transition from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewable energy--energy which by its very nature cannot run out. Here's the short answer to why we need do it fast: climate change and fossil fuel depletion. And, here's the short answer to why we're way behind: History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don't have that long.Skip to next paragraph
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.
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Perhaps the most important thing that people don't realize about building a renewable energy infrastructure is that most of the energy for building it will have to come from fossil fuels. Currently, 84 percent of all the energy consumed worldwide is produced using fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are therefore providing the lion's share of power to the factories that make solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal equipment, hydroelectric generators, wave energy converters, and underwater tidal energy turbines. Right now we are producing at or close to the maximum amount of energy we've ever produced from fossil fuels. But the emerging plateau in world oil production, concerns about the sustainability of coal production, and questionable claims about natural gas supplies are warnings that fossil fuels may not remain plentiful long enough to underwrite an uneven and loitering transition to a renewable energy society.
This is what's been dubbed the rate-of-conversion problem. In a nutshell, is our rate of conversion away from fossil fuels fast enough so as to avoid an unexpected drop in total energy available to society? Will we be far enough along in that conversion when fossil fuel supplies begin to decline so that we won't be forced into an energy austerity that could undermine the stability of our society?
The answer can't be known. But the numbers are not reassuring. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it would take more than 70 years to replace the world's current electrical generating capacity with renewables including hydroelectric, wind, solar, tidal, wave, geothermal, biomass and waste at the rate of installation seen from 2005 through 2009, the last years for which such data is available. And, that's if worldwide generating capacity--which has been expanding at a 4 percent clip per year--is instead held steady.
This also doesn't take into account the amount of energy actually produced versus what is called nameplate capacity. Nameplate capacity is what a wind generator could generate if it operated at maximum capacity 100 percent of the time. But in practice, the turbines are only spinning when the wind blows and then not always at the maximum speed. This so-called capacity factor was just 27 percent for wind farms in the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2011 (PDF). For solar photovoltaic the number was 8.3 percent. Even hydroelectric stations ran at only about 35 percent of capacity. This compares to about 42 percent for conventional coal, 61 percent for natural gas, and 60 percent for nuclear power stations (PDF). The contrast is starker using U.S. numbers: 72 percent for coal and 91 percent for nuclear using 2008 figures, though natural gas was only 11 percent, probably because these were primarily plants that only come on to meet peak demand and so don't run very often.