Fossil fuels are hard to quit and incredibly useful because opened new avenues to mankind, gave us so much more energy to power our economy than we’d ever had before.
Table Of Content
- Our energy comes from the sun, one way or another
- How energy density and convenience drove fossil fuel growth
- Fossil fuels still dominate global electricity generation
- Back to the future: the return of the solar era
- Wind and solar power aren’t everything—the remaining challenges
- WEIGHT OF FUEL
- WEIGHT OF VEHICLE
- Our biggest challenges are political
In this day and age, everyone is aware that using fossil fuels has disastrous effects on the planet. Local pollution from the production and use of fossil fuels is compounded by global climate change brought on by continued usage of these fuels. However, it has been quite difficult to alter our behavior significantly.
However, all of it came to a grinding halt when the COVID-19 epidemic hit. As billions of people have been ordered lately to remain inside and economic activity throughout the globe has plummeted, the demand for and price of oil have plummeted deeper and quicker than ever before. Obviously, the upheaval in the oil market has been detrimental to producers everywhere.
Experts are already wondering whether this crisis will finally drive the world to abandon its reliance on oil. As one put it, “Could the coronavirus crisis be the beginning of the end for the oil industry?” Or, to put it another way, “Will the coronavirus harm the oil industry and help rescue the climate?” Meanwhile, the virus is expected to reduce yearly greenhouse gas emissions by between 4 and 7 percent by 2020, and the smokiest cities in the globe are presently seeing clean skies.
Speculating that the epidemic will help rescue the world in the end is like missing the forest for the trees. For starters, harming the global economy is not an acceptable response to climate change. What other resource can we rely on to replace oil? In terms of accessibility and usefulness, we haven’t come across a suitable alternative to oil. While there is a limited amount of oil in the world, the extraction process is becoming more cost-effective as time goes on. This is also true, to a lesser extent, with natural gas.
The repercussions of climate change are more evident today than ever before.Damage from 15 climate-exacerbated, severe weather events in 2019 exceeded $1 billion apiece. More than $10 billion in damage was produced by four of these occurrences. The most significant cause of global warming is the widespread use of fossil fuels.Their focused energy is, however, difficult to replicate. Why?
Some years ago, after I had finished answering questions from the press at a conference, a reporter asked me just that. Why are we continuing to use oil if we know it is a major factor in global warming and other environmental catastrophes? He asked me, “Why don’t we simply give up?”
I hadn’t given much attention before to how my unique combination of life experiences has prepared me to see the potential and difficulty of transitioning to a cleaner energy system more clearly than others. With experience in government, consulting (for both oil and gas and renewable energy customers), and the think tank world, I have a well-rounded understanding of the energy sector.
Understanding the fossil fuel system, including how energy is generated and used, is a crucial first step in combating the climate change threat. Although fossil fuel corporations have considerable political influence in the United States and elsewhere, this is not primarily due to the success of the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying efforts. In a similar vein, switching over to a renewable energy system is not a breeze. This year’s 2020 election cycle and the spate of litigation against fossil fuel firms show, however, that laying blame is a popular political strategy. Policymakers that are unwilling to execute the legislation required to drive meaningful change, as well as fossil fuel businesses that have rejected the issue for years, are both to blame. Maintaining the status quo has been the easy option.
To change course, the world needs innovative technology and firm policies. There has been a gradual shift throughout human history toward the use of increasingly concentrated, portable, and adaptable energy sources. In order to make the transition to low-carbon energy sources, it is important to first understand the benefits of current energy sources and the history of previous changes. Since we now have a better understanding of the climate problem, we’ve made enormous advances in creating the technologies we’ll need to transition to a low-carbon future. Yet, to know what to do next, it is necessary to know how we got here and why the contemporary world was constructed on fossil fuels.
Our energy comes from the sun, one way or another
All of pre-industrial society’s energy requirements were supplied by the sun. Through photosynthesis, plants are able to transform solar energy into biomass. The biomass was burned for both energy and heat purposes. Animals and humans relied on plant food to fuel their bodies, and they in turn put their physical force to use by doing laborious tasks. To keep the fires burning while they learned to smelt metals and make glass, humans turned to wood-burning charcoal.In addition to photosynthesis, humanity has also harnessed wind and water power, both of which are ultimately powered by the sun. The wind is propelled by the sun’s creation of temperature gradients in the atmosphere, and the sun also provides the energy for the cycle of precipitation and runoff. In this system, however, the sun is the pivotal point, and for the longest period, humans relied only on the photosynthesis-derived energy that the sun delivered.
This harmony between human energy consumption and solar energy may seem ideal, but issues arose when the human population expanded and moved into cities. In the 1500s and 1600s, wood was in short supply in England since it was needed for both fire and construction. For example, London’s population increased from 60,000 in 1534 to 530,000 in 1696, while the cost of building materials like fuel and timber soared at a faster rate than those of any other goods. The once-thriving English woodlands have been wiped out.
Without counting carts for merchandise, around 50,000 horses hauled taxis and buses through the streets of London in 1900. This, of course, resulted in a massive quantity of trash. According to “Dirty Old London,” written by Lee Jackson, by the 1890s, London’s massive horse population produced around one thousand metric tons of excrement each day. The presence of so much manure also encouraged the growth of disease-carrying flies. The state of the transportation network was making people physically ill. There was no paradise at the time before fossils were discovered.
Humanity’s progress was catalyzed by fossil fuels, which provided hitherto unimaginable opportunities. They developed from ancient plants that were subjected to high temperatures and pressure for tens to hundreds of millions of years, effectively storing the sun’s energy. The generated fuels made it possible for humans to no longer rely on photosynthesis and the present biomass production system. Instead, the usage of fossil fuels, which are a stored type of solar energy, allowed for the use of more energy than photosynthesis could offer in the current day.
The use of coal, then oil, and finally natural gas sped up manufacturing, farming, and transportation. In comparison to the early 19th century, before the widespread usage of fossil fuels, our modern world is radically different. The world’s population has expanded from 1 billion in 1800 to approximately 8 billion now, mostly due to advances in medicine and general prosperity. The current economy would collapse without the fossil fuel energy grid. We owe a great deal to fossil fuels, which propelled the industrial revolution, lifted millions out of abject poverty, and defined the contemporary world.
How energy density and convenience drove fossil fuel growth
The iron industry was the first to make the dramatic switch from wood and charcoal to coal as early as the 1700s. By the year 1900, coal had surpassed biomass as the world’s principal industrial fuel. Coal is three times as energy dense per pound as dry wood, and it can be found all around the globe. The widespread use of coal as a fuel source for transportation vehicles meant that vessels and locomotives needed less room to store fuel.
After coal, oil became a prominent energy source. Oil was used and traded in modern-day Azerbaijan and other regions decades before the first commercial U.S. oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. Oil replaced whale oil as a lighting source, and gasoline was a byproduct of kerosene refining. The transportation industry, however, is where oil really shines. The debut of the Ford Model T in 1908 and the subsequent proliferation of private automobiles during World War II marked the beginning of the modern oil age. In 1964, oil surpassed coal as the primary energy source throughout the globe.
Oil reserves aren’t as widely dispersed as coal’s are, but oil offers many significant benefits. Oil-based fuels are very close to perfection in terms of their performance in cars. They have a higher energy density than coal, often providing twice as much energy per pound. However, they are liquids rather than solids, which made possible the creation of the internal combustion engine, the backbone of modern transportation.
The amount of energy that can be extracted from a given quantity of fuel varies greatly. If you want to get the same amount of energy out of a unit of mass, fossil fuels are your best bet.
The discovery of oil redirected human events. Before World War I, for instance, the British and American fleets made the switch from coal to oil, enabling their ships to go longer between refuelings than their coal-fired German counterparts. Further, oil allowed for faster sea travel, and it was easier to transport oil to boilers by pipe than by using human labor. The United States supplied the allies with approximately two-thirds of the world’s oil during World War II, which was vital to their eventual triumph. An inability to replenish gasoline reserves thwarted the German army’s blitzkrieg plan, while fuel shortages also hurt the Japanese navy.
Gaseous fossil fuel Natural gas may be discovered in subterranean deposits on its own, although it is most often found with oil. There was a lot of waste from the gas that was generated along with the oil in the early days of the oil business, and there was a saying that if you went searching for oil and found gas instead, you would be fired right away. Natural gas’s clean combustion and its usage as a feedstock in industrial processes have increased its worth in recent years. Natural gas is squandered in places where the necessary infrastructure to get it to consumers does not yet exist because of its gaseous state.
Electricity’s widespread availability in the 20th century was the century’s last major contribution to the world’s energy landscape. As opposed to coal or oil, electricity is a means of transporting and using energy. At the point of application, electricity is very effective, adaptable, environmentally friendly, and silent. Like oil, electricity’s first use was in lighting; but, with the advent of the induction motor, electrical energy could be easily transformed into mechanical energy and used to run anything from factories to cars.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the energy system shifted from making extensive use of fossil fuels for direct energy usage to instead relying heavily on their use in power plants. The percentage of each fuel type used to generate power is different. While around 63% of the world’s coal production is used to create power, very little oil (an energy-dense liquid) is wasted for this purpose. Electricity production from nonfossil fuel sources, such as nuclear and hydroelectric, is an integral element of the system in many regions. 64% of the world’s power is still produced by fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels still dominate global electricity generation
It’s not simply that we’ve been shifting away from solar energy and toward fossil fuels, though that is part of the narrative. Also, there has always been a shift toward fuels that are both more efficient and less cumbersome to operate than their predecessors. When the energy density of a fuel is higher, less of it is required to do the same task. Because of their high energy density and the ease with which they can be pumped, liquid fuels derived from oil have enabled the development of several new technologies, most notably in the transportation sector. Also, there are a variety of uses for electricity since it is a very adaptable energy source.
Back to the future: the return of the solar era
Thanks to fossil fuels, we no longer need to depend on the sun’s fluxes of today; instead, we may use solar energy that has been concentrated over millions of years. This sounded like a good plan until we figured out how to exploit solar flows effectively.
A severe drawback to fossil fuels’ benefits does exist, though. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are now known to be causing an unprecedented acceleration of global warming. Reversing global warming before it irrevocably alters our planet is one of the biggest problems mankind faces today.
The effects of growing CO2 concentrations are becoming more apparent now that there are about eight billion of us. It’s obvious that returning to the days when biomass was the primary source of energy was not an option. Still, we must figure out how to once again depend on real-time solar fluxes (and maybe nuclear energy) to power our society. Energy consumption has increased dramatically as the human population has grown, as have the size and complexity of the global economy. However, modern technologies exist that convert solar energy into usable forms considerably more effectively than photosynthesis.
With the global increase in population and economic activity since 1900, the use of fossil fuels has increased dramatically.
Unfortunately, as the average temperature of the Earth has risen, so has the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the most significant greenhouse gas.
The sun provides more than enough power for our energy-intensive contemporary lifestyles and the whole planet. More than a thousand times as much solar energy as is collected annually from fossil fuels reaches livable land. This energy, however, is difficult to target because of its widespread nature. Even if the sun’s rays are giving you energy when they warm your face, you’ll need to focus them in order to do things like heat your house or power your car.
Here’s where today’s technology comes in handy. Rather than using inefficient methods like burning biomass to capture sun energy, as was done before the industrial revolution, modern technologies like wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) cells can turn these fluxes into electricity at a high rate. Both wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies have seen significant price reductions in recent years and are now widely used because of their low overall cost. Existing power generation methods, such as nuclear and hydroelectric, do not produce any carbon dioxide (CO2). When these new renewables are combined with the established ones, it becomes possible to decarbonize the electrical industry and get rid of CO2 emissions altogether. In 2018, 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States came from the production of electricity.
On the other hand, unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar can only provide power when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Since electricity is produced and used in real time, with production shifting to maintain system balance, this poses a significant technical issue.
Problems in engineering usually prompt the development of one or more approaches to resolving such problems. Power networks that serve a wider region are often more stable because even if it’s not windy or sunny in one place, it still could be in another. Customers whose operations are sufficiently flexible may be incentivized to increase their electricity consumption during times when renewable energy is available and decrease it during times when it is not by using demand-response tactics. Technology advancements in energy storage enable the storage of surplus power for later use. Currently, hydroelectric dams can fulfill this role, and in the future, batteries will become more cost-effective for grid-scale energy storage. Hourly storage techniques, such as accumulating solar energy for use later in the day, are effective. However, the bigger difficulty comes from long-term storage. It’s possible that surplus power may be used to produce hydrogen or other fuels that could be used later. Last but not least, fossil fuel production typically fills in the gaps in renewable energy today, particularly natural gas power, which can be effectively scaled up and down to meet demand.
To begin developing a carbon-free energy infrastructure, it is essential to convert solar energy flow into electricity. In a nutshell, we must eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity industry and convert as much energy usage as possible to electrical power. Electricity may be used to power many essential operations, particularly those that remain in one place, such as in buildings and many industrial procedures. This approach is the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” for combating climate change.
There can be no separation between the two halves of this formula. Your neighbors will notice your environmental consciousness when you pull up in your beautiful new electric car, but you’ll need a greener power system to get the full benefits of your investment. Although electric cars are generally good for the current power grid in the United States and the rest of the globe, their impact on emissions varies widely depending on where you live. To fully realize the benefits of electric cars, a grid must be built that delivers only renewable or zero-carbon electricity, which is currently not possible in any region of the United States on a constant basis.
Wind and solar power aren’t everything—the remaining challenges
While in theory “Electrify Everything” seems like a fantastic strategy, in practice, not everything is amenable to being powered by electricity. Some characteristics of fossil fuels, such as their energy density and their capacity to deliver extremely high heat, are hard to simulate. Therefore, low-carbon fuels that are similar to fossil fuels in their properties are required to decarbonize systems that depend on them.
The transportation industry places a premium on the high energy density of fossil fuels. The fuel load and capacity of a vehicle are critical factors in its mobility. Although electric cars are often cited as a way to reduce reliance on oil, they are not without their limitations. The energy content of one pound of gasoline or diesel fuel is around 40 times that of the most advanced battery technology now available. However, electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines, and electric cars are mechanically simpler with fewer moving parts. Despite these benefits, an electric car will still be heavier than a comparable vehicle powered by fossil fuels because of the weight of its battery. This cost is negligible for passenger cars and other light-load vehicles that can refill often. However, the vast disparity in energy density between fossil fuels and batteries presents a significant barrier for modes of transportation like aircraft, marine shipping, and long-haul trucking, where the vehicle must carry heavy loads over long distances without recharging.
WEIGHT OF FUEL
Compared to batteries, gasoline has a far higher energy density. A 12.4-gallon gas tank holds 77.5 pounds of fuel for an automobile.
However, a 77.5-pound battery can only power an electric vehicle for 21 kilometers.
A 1,334-pound battery is required for a 360-mile electric vehicle range.
WEIGHT OF VEHICLE
Electric cars, apart from the battery, have lighter and more straightforward elements than their gasoline-powered equivalents. As a result, the total weight penalty for electric cars isn’t as severe as the weight penalty for the battery alone.
Another difficulty is posed by industrial operations that need very high temperatures, such as the making of steel, cement, and glass. Temperatures in cement kilns average over 1,400°C, whereas steel blast furnaces run at around 1,100°C. Extreme heat like this is hard to create without burning fuel, making electrical propulsion a challenge.
While renewable energy may help reduce emissions for electrically powered operations, this won’t help with those that aren’t yet electrified. The world urgently needs carbon-free fuels with the same energy density as fossil fuels for these processes. There are a lot of possibilities, but they all have their drawbacks and might require further development before they’re ecologically and economically feasible.
One viable option is the use of biofuels, since the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted during combustion is the same CO2 that was absorbed by the plant during its growth. However, biofuels are not zero-carbon unless the whole production process operates on renewable or zero-carbon energy, since the processing needed to transform plants into useable fuels requires energy, resulting in CO2 emissions. Given the emissions caused by transporting the maize to processing plants and converting it to fuel, corn ethanol mixed into gasoline in the United States produces, on average, 39% fewer CO2 emissions than the gasoline it replaces. Growing biofuel production poses additional difficulties, such as increased competition for arable land with food production and conservation uses like leisure, fishing, and animal habitats. However, there is a scarcity of these wastes, and the technique requires development before fuels derived from agricultural waste or municipal trash can be economically viable.
One alternative is to use renewable power to create a fuel that can be burned. To create hydrogen, water is electrolyzed to separate its hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a process that may be powered by renewable energy. Hydrogen may then be used in place of natural gas as a carbon-free fuel option. Diesel and jet fuel might be replaced by liquid fuels made from combining electricity, carbon dioxide (CO2), and hydrogen. The rules of thermodynamics are against us when we try to do things like divide water atoms or make liquid fuels from scratch. These techniques require a great deal of energy since they employ electricity to reverse the combustion process. These procedures make sense only in contexts where direct usage of energy is impractical, since they would require massive quantities of renewable power.
Carbon collection and storage, or “utilisation,” is the only remaining option for stationary applications such as heavy industries.CO2 would be produced when fossil fuels are used, but instead of being discharged into the atmosphere, it would be stored underground. It is the hope of the developing processes that CO2 may be extracted from the air. The carbon dioxide would either be employed in an industrial operation or pumped far below.
Today, enhanced oil recovery—in which pressurized CO2 is pumped into an oil reservoir to squeeze out additional oil—is the primary use of collected CO2. The concept of trapping carbon dioxide for the purpose of turning it into additional fossil fuel sounds counterintuitive. However, research shows that the injected CO2 remains in the oil reservoir indefinitely. The combustion emissions of the oil generated might be offset by injecting enough CO2 during oil production, potentially leading to net negative emissions. Though it won’t solve the problem of oil consumption altogether, this may make it practical in areas where it’s now unavoidable, like aircraft.
Today, carbon capture is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing emissions from combustion-based sectors. Cement manufacture, for example, generates CO2 as a byproduct when limestone is heated to form a component of cement; this method has the benefit of capturing both fuel combustion emissions and process emissions.
When thinking about how carbon capture may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, keep in mind that burning fossil fuels isn’t the root of the issue. Keeping some fossil fuel usage while using carbon capture technology to address specific emission sources is still an effective strategy for addressing the underlying issue.
Our biggest challenges are political
We know from scientific research that we have to revamp our energy infrastructure and cut down on carbon dioxide emissions. However, the nature of climate change makes it politically difficult to deal with in addition to the technical issues. Redesigning a multi-trillion-dollar business at the heart of the economy and people’s lives is essential if we’re going to reduce the effects of climate change. Investing today in projects with unknown but long-term rewards is necessary to reduce humanity’s dependency on fossil fuels. As a result, politicians often avoid making these kinds of tough choices and instead prioritize measures with visible, near-term effects for their constituents. Consider the question “if any climate policy is both large enough to matter and popular enough to happen,” which was posed by The New York Times last year. For climate policy to last, it must have support from many different groups, not just politicians. This includes business owners, community activists, and lawmakers from both parties. Since they will unavoidably have different points of view, this lack of agreement, along with actual attempts to influence the legislative process, is a major contributor to the political difficulty of taking action on climate change. (To get a feel for the policy challenges facing the president, try your hand at our (admittedly simplified!) game, “A president’s climate quandary,” down below.)
The present emphasis in the developed world, including the United States, is on lowering the greenhouse gas emissions that result from our energy-intensive lifestyles. Providing modern energy to the billion people in developing countries who don’t have it at the moment is the second element of today’s energy dilemma. The second objective, which is for poor nations to choose a greener route than the industrialized world, doesn’t get as much attention in the public dialogue about climate change but is just as important. The task is made more difficult by the fact that emerging nations need both more and cleaner energy, yet a solution that ignores them is no answer at all.
Because they are so widely available and affordable, fossil fuels complicate efforts to phase them out. Around 15 years ago, there was a lot of attention paid to “peak the theory that the world would soon run out of oil, or at least affordable oil, and that a day of reckoning would soon follow. That hypothesis has been proven false by events over the last decade.In fact, the reverse has been happening, and nowhere more so than in the United States, where oil output has actually increased as prices have gone down. Oil output has increased because of technological advancements. Geologists have known about these reserves for some time but have struggled to turn a profit. There’s no reason to anticipate this tendency to taper off anytime soon. Thus, we will not be saved if we eventually run out of oil. It will not be simple for the globe to make the switch away from oil and other fossil fuels while they are so readily available and affordable.
We must avoid simplistic approaches if we are to successfully implement this technologically and politically complex change. Personally, my views on how we need to respond to climate change have developed over time as our knowledge of the climate system has grown and as time has passed with emissions continuously growing. For instance, I didn’t always believe in the concept of capturing carbon from the air or from industrial operations. As a trained engineer, I couldn’t fathom using such a power-hungry method to remove pollution. Knowing now what I do about processes that are challenging to decarbonize in other ways, I’ve revised my view.
CO2 buildup in the atmosphere is analogous to filling a balloon. It’s a cumulative system, meaning that the amount of material that may remain in the air for up to 200 years is steadily increasing. While the precise moment at which global warming becomes catastrophic is unknown, it is certain that the system will become overstretched and degraded, resulting in an increasing number of adverse outcomes. Due to the interconnected structure of the climate system, we will need more drastic action if we delay any longer. This means that it is preferable to take action as soon as possible. Wherever possible, immediate action is required, such as in the fields of electricity and light vehicles, and in the construction industry, where new structures must be designed to maximize energy efficiency. Other areas require more technology, like heavy transport and manufacturing, or will take a long time, like updating our current stock of structures.
Those who are striving to cease fossil fuel production immediately are overlooking the fact that fossil fuels will still be required in various industries for some time. It’s shortsighted to ignore controversial energy options because of their unpopularity, such as nuclear power and carbon capture. We can’t solve this issue with only renewable power production; we need to use all available technology. While some on the right are guilty of open denial when it comes to the climate crisis, I worry that magical thinking and purity tests are gaining traction on the left.
Why is it so hard to give up coal?
If you want a quick response, know that coal is both inexpensive and abundant. However, removing coal from the equation is not simple, especially as renewables grow more cost-effective. The rising global population and standard of living have resulted in a dramatic rise in the demand for electricity, and current renewable energy sources cannot keep up with this trend.
For what reason do we continue to rely on outdated energy sources?
Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas provide 81% of the United States’ energy needs. We rely on those fuels to keep our homes warm, our cars running, our factories operating, and our lights on.
Why haven’t we stopped burning fossil fuels?
Putting a halt to all fossil fuel production and use at once is not practical. Oil, coal, and gas are crucial to the functioning of the global economy, human health, and people’s ability to make a living. But low-carbon renewable energy sources need to gradually replace fossil fuels.
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