In most aspects of life, having a firm grasp of the fundamentals is critical for good decision-making and success. While we may not like the fact that water tends to flow downhill, anyone wanting to swim upstream better take that fact into consideration before venturing into the water.
As governments and companies seek to transition away from fossil fuels toward various types of renewable energy sources it would be a good idea to take a step back and reflect on some energy fundamentals. Otherwise, they are swimming upstream.
Beginning in mid-19th century England and spreading rapidly throughout the globe, humanity began to harness the energy stored in fossil fuels. Coal came first, displacing less-efficient and often less-abundant fuels like wood and animal dung.
Importantly, this transition took place based on traditional economic incentives, not government subsidies and mandates. That’s in large part because fossil fuels possess three immutable characteristics that propelled their rapid adoption and continued dominance in global energy usage.
- They are naturally energy dense.
- They can be relatively easily transported.
- They can be stored indefinitely for future use.
These critical attributes have enabled societies to generate electricity, power transportation and provide industrial heat reliably and at very low cost.
Today’s renewables, consisting mainly of wind and solar, do not possess these three fundamental attributes. Renewables are naturally diffuse and the electricity they create can only be gathered when the source of that energy is available. This electricity must then be transported, at times long distances with significant energy loss, to power the grid. Finally, while battery technology is improving, electricity storage at industrial scale for long periods of time is not a current or even near-term reality.
Those are the incontrovertible facts. They may, and likely will, change in the future, but for now those are the fundamentals everyone must acknowledge.
It’s common to hear statements from proponents of a rapid renewable-energy transition like, “recent improvements in technology now allow renewables to compete effectively with fossil fuels.”
That’s nonsense. Renewables simply don’t possess any of the three critically important attributes of fossil fuels: energy density, easy transportability, and long-term storage. But like that challenge swimming upstream, the energy-transition crowd wants to talk about the possible, not the actual.
Some recent experiences in Texas, with the February 2021 freeze and the seemingly annual calls for decreasing power usage in the summer months, should tell us something about the challenges facing a developed, modern economy that thrives on electricity and transportation 24 hours a day.
Just look at Europe. The European Union and its member states ignored years of warnings that they should produce more fossil fuels because the day might come when Russia would use energy access as a political hammer. Instead, most EU countries wanted to tout their renewable energy expansion, even as they increasingly relied on Russian natural gas to power their economies.
We should all be skeptical of those with a damn-the-torpedoes mindset when it comes to transitioning away from fossil fuels that have immeasurably improved the human condition. If transition advocates won’t acknowledge the problems we’ve experienced with renewables and provide balanced, logical and actionable solutions, we are right to question their motives and assertions of a smooth transition.