There is significant talk in the U.S. now concerning the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources to reduce the U.S. impact on global warming. Politically, a Green New Deal is being promoted for achieving the goal of full replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy.
The Green New Deal sounds like an admirable endeavor but, realistically, once fully implemented the U.S. would still consume huge volumes of fossil fuels as explained below.
In the 2010-2015 period, individuals such as Michael Brune (Sierra Club), Joe Romm (Climate Progress) and numerous others were pushing the idea that renewable energy sources could completely replace fossil fuels by 2030.
Joe Romm, as an example, makes it sound like the advantages of renewable energy sources are overwhelming compared to fossil fuels. According to him, converting all energy sources to renewable energy would be easy to achieve and would cost virtually nothing.
That begs the question: why aren’t developed nations, such as European nations, rapidly replacing their fossil fuel uses with renewable energy and why do they still have high per capita CO2 emission rates, typically much higher than developing nations?
The U.S. has a per capita CO2 emission rate, which is generally double that of European nations or a little more (See Figure 1).
*Russian per capita CO2 emissions are 11.86 metric tonnes per capita. If U.S. imports are included in the figure for CO2 emissions per capita, the value rises to 19.0 for the U.S.
The U.S. infrastructure was developed at a time when energy resources appeared infinite, and the energy was cheap, so the infrastructure was built with no thought of conserving energy. The infrastructure was built around motor vehicles rather than mass transit, which has led to extensive urban sprawl in virtually all U.S. cities wherein commuters often drive long distances to get to work, stores, etc.
Historically, Europe had little indigenous oil available for development prior to the discovery of North Sea oil so an extensive reliance on motor vehicles was avoided. A high percentage of the European population lives in cities where people can walk or bike to wherever they need to go, houses tend to be smaller and an efficient mass transit system was developed.
Still European countries burn huge volumes of fossil fuels, their rates of CO2 emissions are relatively high and those rates are declining slowly if at all, particularly in highly industrialized nation such as Germany (see Figure 2).
*Carbon dioxide emitted in metric tons (t) per person per year for the U.S., Germany and France from 2006 to 2015. Data from Energy Information Agency and BP.
We are now well along toward 2030 and not much progress has been made in the U.S. toward replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. The U.S. has reduced the use of coal, largely replacing it with natural gas in electrical power facilities, but then the natural gas obtained from fracking is probably as bad as using coal, in terms of CO2 emissions, because of fugitive methane emissions associated with fracking and gas transport.
Many promoters of renewables argue that the problem in the U.S. is largely political in nature, not technical or economic. The reality is that it is more difficult to replace fossil fuels than promoters are willing to admit.
Germany passed legislation in 1997 to replace fossil fuels in the electrical power sector with renewables (see https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-climate-change-green-energy-shift-is-more-fizzle-than-sizzle/ or https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/25/opinions/germany-climate-change-secret-paul-hockenos/index.html ). Their efforts are sputtering and Germany’s CO2 emissions have been relatively flat over the last ~10 years (see Figure 2).
Germany has installed thousands of windmills, as of 2015 about 25,000, and a large number of solar panels (in 2017, 44% of installed solar panels globally were installed in Germany) but still Germany relies heavily on fossil fuel energy sources. Why?
The idea of replacing fossil fuel energy sources with renewables is simple; wind and solar would largely substitute for fossil fuels in all fossil fuel uses. Theoretically, that is possible but reality is a bit more complicated.
First, many economic activities are not particularly conducive to renewable energy sources such as the process of extracting minerals with heavy equipment, aviation, various construction activities, and agriculture.
Wind and solar are intermittent energy sources so when the wind is not blowing or sun not shinning, there has to be a backup. The backups involve using fossil fuel sources, using nuclear power or having large storage facilities, which store wind and solar energy.
If the backup involves a fossil fuel source, CO2 will continue to be generated. An alternative is to have large-scale energy storage facilities. The problem with that is that large-scale storage facilities are expensive to develop and maintain.
Environmentalists are generally thrilled to jump on the bandwagon for replacing fossil fuels with renewables. The appeal of this idea is that one can continue to live a high consumption lifestyle, even if that lifestyle presently generates large CO2 emissions, because in time, energy needs will all be met with renewable energy. Of course, if that goal is achieved, a lot of CO2 will still be added to the atmosphere as the transition takes place. If that goal is not achieved, a lot of CO2 will have been added to the atmosphere and will continue to be added.
In the case of the transportation sector, the idea that is promoted is that all motor vehicles will be replaced with electric vehicles and the electric vehicles will be charged up with the use of renewable energy.
Promotors of electric vehicles never talk about what I think is the most important aspect of replacing gasoline/diesel vehicles with electric vehicles. That is the energy-to-mass ratio of gasoline or diesel versus lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries are used in electric vehicles because lithium is the lightest of metals, which imparts significant advantages to the batteries.
Gasoline and diesel fuel have an energy-to-mass ratio that is greater than 50 times that of a fully charged lithium ion battery. To address that issue, auto manufacturers use lightweight, and expensive, materials to construct electric vehicles. That makes electric vehicles relatively expensive. To address that issue, subsidies are used to reduce the cost of electric vehicles to consumers. It’s hard to tell what the actual cost of electric vehicles are to manufacturers due to subsidies.
If the energy-to-mass issue wasn’t enough, a recent study concluded that electric vehicles actually create more CO2 than diesel-fueled vehicles, and I would assume gasoline-fueled vehicles, when all aspects of the vehicle’s manufacture and use are included (https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-04-21/new-study-shocks-electric-cars-considerably-worse-climate-diesel-cars).
The moral of this story is that beyond the political problems of moving from fossil fuels to renewables, there are problems that are not political. But that is not to dismiss the political problems. In the U.S., for example, the fossil fuel lobby spends a lot of money to acquire political influence and has basically captured the political system as it pertains to fossil fuel issues.
One individual who is more realistic about what needs to be done – but will not be done – to reduce CO2 emissions is the prominent climate scientist Kevin Anderson. Approximately 6 years ago he stated that the world had to reduce CO2 emissions by 10%/year starting immediately to prevent a worst-case scenario in terms of warming. He was very likely right about that, but at the time I stated the world would not do what he said needed to be done. As it has turned out, CO2 emissions have increased since then not decreased.
Kevin is now stating that we have to fundamentally change the way we live. Specifically we need to get away from a materialist lifestyle. The problem is that in the U.S., and much of the world now, we have a hedonic lifestyle which most Americans worship. Thus, we have lots of magical thinking when it comes to addressing the global warming issue and we prefer to kick the can down the road and test the worst-case scenario.
To be clear, those who deny the conclusions of climate science are partaking in magical thinking because the science is overwhelming. As well, those who believe that renewables will largely or wholly replace fossil fuels are partaking in magical thinking because it’s based upon nothing more than naïve optimism. The fundamental problem we face is that there are too many people consuming too much fossil fuels and producing too much CO2. Either we will correct the problem or nature will correct the problem.
With that said, if nothing can be done to contain increasing CO2 emissions in developing nations, such as China and India, any reductions in developed nations including the U.S. could be overwhelmed by increasing emissions in those developing nations. To succeed, we would need to act together, the world over, and the odds against that seem to be very high at this point.