We’ve all heard the phrase at some point or another, usually in response to devastating news about shrinking glaciers and rising temperatures, emphasizing the necessity of the so-called energy transition: Using renewable resources is the only way to save our planet.
For most people, the goal of the energy transition is the elimination of the use of all non-renewable resources, like oil, natural gas and coal, and the replacement of said resources with renewable resources such as wind and solar power. However, few people slow down to stop and think about what going fully green could mean and whether it’s even feasible.
To put it simply, it’s not.
The transition from non-renewable resources to renewable resources is too expensive, the resources are too limited and the technology is not advanced enough to handle the change.
To start, the energy transition outlay would require around $150 trillion to complete, according to the International Energy Agency. To put this into perspective, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the creation of the Dot-Com bubble required $2.9 trillion. This was when investors pumped money into Internet based startups in hopes they would turn a profit — these investments essentially helped create the Internet economy. According to Bloomberg.com, although the world spent a record $775 billion on the energy transition in 2021, it represents only a fraction of the total cost it would require to completely transition to renewable energy.
The world is too reliant on fossil fuels to completely transition to renewable energy. As of 2020, 84 percent of the world’s energy came from non-renewable sources, according to Forbes.com. To transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy would require a massive lifestyle shift for the majority of the world, a shift that is not feasible for many developing countries around the world. According to the International Monetary Fund, if the world made the energy transition, countries— such as Kazakhstan and Iran— that are rich in resources like oil, natural gas and coal would experience a significant fall in the value of their resources. But many countries do not have the economic diversity to switch from fossil fuels to renewable resources — doing so would result in a catastrophic economic decline. Further, the United Nations estimates that nearly 3 billion people currently have no or limited access to clean and safe cooking and heating fuels. It is not practical, or compassionate, to dream of forcing them to adopt renewables, while limiting their access to a shrinking supply of reliable fossil fuel production.
And the world simply does not have enough renewable energy to power the planet.
While renewable energy is in fact growing, according to CNBC, so is overall energy demand. According to Matthew Boyle, manager of global coal and Asia power analytics at S&P Global Platts, the global supply of renewable energy will increase 35 gigawatts from 2021 to 2022 — at the same time, global power demand will increase by 100 gigawatts, meaning countries will have to tap into their non-renewable resources to satisfy the growing demand.
Another potential problem with renewable energy is its unreliability. Many forms of renewable energy rely on weather, which — as we all know as North Texans — is wildly unpredictable. Even if a country has sufficient wind farms or solar panels, if there is no wind or sun, energy production would be significantly lacking. Renewable energy is non-dispatchable, it can’t be turned on and off when needed. Dispatchable sources can be managed to meet the energy demand, whereas renewable energy cannot because renewable energy can only generate energy flow when their primary energy flow, such as sunlight or wind, is upon them. As a result, renewable energy does not produce consistent electricity, and so its power output cannot be controlled. Because renewable energy is non-dispatchable, its unreliableness can lead to power outages and blackouts. Such is the case in California, when in 2019 an extreme heat wave caused an uptick in power demand, and the newly transitioned power supply couldn’t supply the demand.
Also, just how “clean” is clean energy? Electric vehicles have been at the vanguard for much of the push for the energy transition, encouraging buyers that vehicles that run on electricity are better for the environment than vehicles that run on gasoline. According to the International Energy Association, electric vehicles require six times the amount of mineral inputs of a conventional car. Prices for these minerals, especially lithium, have soared in recent years. Even though lithium is not considered a “rare” mineral, mining it is extremely expensive and leaves an environmental impact. Switching to primarily electric vehicles would require the U.S. to become extremely reliant on China, which holds the majority of the world’s lithium stores, a notion that is both frightening and dangerous. In July of 2020, during a Hudson Institute Video Event, FBI director Christopher Wray said, “The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.”
In addition, seven percent of U.S. cars were electric vehicles in 2021 — to aid the energy transition, 60 percent of total car sales will have to be electric vehicles by 2030, according to the IEA. Making the switch to electric vehicles would place extreme pressure on nickel, cobalt and lithium stores. Oftentimes, these stores are mined unethically, creating more strain on the environment.
A 100 percent shift to renewable resources, especially if rushed too quickly, is just simply unfeasible. Instead of devoting time and money to going 100 percent green, corporations should instead focus on implementing a pragmatic balance. The best near-future solution would be transitioning from coal, which is currently responsible for 48 percent of energy emissions outside of the U.S., according to EQT, the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. EQT proposes that instead of devoting small amounts of effort to scattered projects to help reduce climate change, the next 20 years should be devoted to eliminating worldwide coal emissions by replacing it with natural gas.
Natural gas is a cleaner renewable energy resource than coal — around 117 pounds of CO2 are produced per million British thermal (MMBtu) of natural gas, compared to 200 pounds of CO2 per MMBtu of coal. The climate benefits of this crucial step would equate to electrifying 100 percent of U.S. vehicles, implementing rooftop solar panels on every U.S. home and doubling wind capacity. Eliminating international coal emissions by replacing it with natural gas is the best way to combat climate change in the near future. Once coal emissions have been eliminated, the world can focus on transitioning primarily to renewable resources, but keeping natural gas as a necessary backup.