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Why Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Cleaner Alternatives Will Require Fossil Fuels

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The world is waiting for a clean revolution, a shift away from the greenhouse gas-emitting, mountain-leveling, air-polluting, fossil-fuel burning way of life. The world may have to wait a long time if past energy transitions are anything to go by, according to environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba—especially since fossil fuel energy is so cheap.

"Energy is dirt cheap. Oil is cheaper than any mineral you can buy," Smil noted. "The percent of disposable income devoted to energy is about 10 percent."

Smil spoke at the recent Equinox Summit at the Perimeter Insitute in Waterloo, Ontario, which was specifically charged with devising a new energy scenario for 2030, one that would cut greenhouse gas emissions while extending modern energy to the billions of people who lack it today. The summit called for a range of options, from power plants that harvest energy from hot rocks to solar-battery combos for rural electrification.

The only problem: all of those resources require fossil fuels to build in the first place. Steel and cement—the essential substrate of energy equipment and cities—require coal (or, even worse, charcoal) to be burned. Cheap plastic photovoltaics require polymers made from oil. The fertilizer that feeds a global population of seven billion requires the conversion of natural gas to more than 140 million tons of ammonia per year. Even advanced nuclear reactors would need large, oil-burning machines to mine the uranium or thorium fuel.

"A wind turbine is a pure embodiment of power from fossil fuels," Smil noted. "We are fundamentally a fossil fuel civilization. Everything around us we have fossil fuels to thank for."

Nor is the world in danger of finishing off the supply of fossil fuels anytime soon. "Instead of running out of gas, we ran into gas in the shale," Smil said. "We’re not running out of anything on a human scale."

That may be a good thing since the alternatives currently on offer—such as biofuels to substitute for oil-derived fuels—can do more harm than good. "It’s insane. It’s taking food from the mouths of babies," Smil said. "It’s a make work project for farmers."

Plus it took three decades, tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (a result of fertilizer run-off) to allow ethanol from corn—the most productive per hectare crop on the planet—to supply 10 percent of U.S. car fuel. And that’s relatively fast; liquefied natural gas took more than 150 years from conceptual discovery to actual shipments, a timespan similar to the shift from wood to coal, for example. "We should focus our resources and attention on what has the best chance to succeed," Smil said. "That’s not biofuels, that’s not wind. It is PV," or photovoltaic modules for converting light energy to electricity.

And what has an even better chance of success—and immediate impact—is reforming the current energy system, whether through better building codes that require more insulation and triple-pane windows or making the most efficient use of fossil fuels. After all, if all of Canada switched to more than 90 percent efficient natural gas furnaces, the country would produce 40 percent less CO2. "There is no renewable energy that will get you 40 percent less carbon on a scale like that," Smil said. "Changing furnaces is an energy transition."



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  1. 1. lamorpa 10:15 am 06/29/2011

    ‘Renewable’ energy source advocates almost always leave out the cost and environmental load of the development, manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance, lifespan, and disposal/recycling of their energy sources. That’s why they appear so clean and efficient. I not against renewables; I just think they need to be viewed realistically.

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  2. 2. racer79 11:25 am 06/29/2011

    While I personnally agree with you, it is also the "norm" for coal fire and natural gas energy plants to leave out that kind of information as well. If you’re going to take those kind of factors into account, you gotta do it across the board.

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  3. 3. sault 12:06 pm 06/29/2011

    I agree with racer. You have to take ALL externalities into account, especially if you’re trying to fault renewable energy for its supposed shortcomings. Mr. Smil makes the same mistake when he says, "Energy is dirt cheap." Of course it’s cheap when you don’t account for the healthcare and property damage costs of pollution and climate disruption. Add in the military budget allocated to securing oil from the Middle East and a gallon of gasoline should be almost $10/gallon.

    Additionally, OF COURSE we’ll need fossil fuels to make renewable energy for the time being. Dirty energy supplies the most power right now, so you get into a chicken-and-egg problem if you try to power renewable energy deployment with renewable energy. As more clean energy is put in place, the amount of fossil energy in the ENTIRE economy will decline and then renewable energy will be made using renewable energy. A wind turbine may be the "pure embodiment of power from fossil fuels" for now, but I’d rather use that energy to make wind turbines than more coal power plants. That way, the current downward spiral of environmental destruction can eventually be replaced with a virtuous cycle of steadily cleaning up our act.

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  4. 4. racer79 12:19 pm 06/29/2011

    My thoughts exactly

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  5. 5. acosbey 1:03 pm 06/29/2011

    The article is inaccurate:

    "After all, if all of Canada switched to more than 90 percent efficient natural gas furnaces, the country would produce 40 percent less CO2."

    That’s not what he says, and it’s far from true. Canada would produce 40% less CO2 *from natural gas burned in furnaces*. There’s a BIG difference.

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  6. 6. lamorpa 1:50 pm 06/29/2011

    Sault, you miss the point. It is possible, when all factors are taken into account, some these ‘renewable’ sources are net-energy negative. They can’t be scaled up, because more energy is required to produce the energy than can be generated. Granted, fossil sources are consumed, but they are net-energy positive, meaning they can be scaled up. These is more than one reason for a resource to be not renewable. I hope the science behind energy production rules, not politics, blind faith or simple popularity.

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  7. 7. balaganesh727 2:26 pm 06/29/2011

    The shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy costs much as to go with the statistics, but the alternative solution provided is Photovoltaic cells, which are in principle harvests sunlight, well differntly from how a plant system does.

    The look over the promising nature of Biofuels has been changing apparently because people here need day after tomorrow solution, which is never possible in research.

    The actual creepy thing about Biofuels, turning the corn into biofuel, can be changed into a biomass to energy fuel conversion system. It takes time to workout and achieve in a most probable solution, like the shift from the coal and wood to oil, where research and technology development consumed significant part.

    As with Biofuels, a kind of complicated mess surrounds and it will unfold as time goes. So Biofuels are the most likely to replace our energy needs in the near future.

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  8. 8. karlos 6:41 am 06/30/2011

    A better example would be the pairing of renewable energy. Most people believe that wind and solar replaces fossils, but if the energy isn’t stored or biomass not used for pairing then gas plants are required to synchronize the intermittency of wind and solar with the ups and downs of the grid. The more wind and solar plants that get built, the more dependent on fossils we become.

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  9. 9. Fyredawg 6:31 pm 06/30/2011

    I agree that setting up these reneables does use fossil fuels to get off the ground. But at TogetherWeCanFixThis we have found a way to reduce that amount hugely. The first power unit made with the technology we have developed will be used to power the manufacturing plant(an existing and currently unused building), taking at least a portion of the building off the grid. This translates into a net reduction in fossil fuel use from the start up. As more are built they will be used to take the entire facility off the grid and no more fossil fuels will be needed at the manufacturing level. Other plants will be taken off the grid and powered by these units so that eeven the initial units will take no extra power from polluting sources. come over and see what we are doing.

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  10. 10. J4zonian 10:12 pm 06/30/2011

    SHORT version: efficiency, solar, wind are ready and able to provide all the energy we need. Needless detours into nuclear, so-called non-dirty coal, and burning anything, will only delay real solutions and may doom us. Reforesting the world, local organic permaculture, walking, bicycling, rail, sail, mail (deprivatization) and scale (downward) are some of the answers. Stabilizing and then reducing population will help a lot, even though it isn’t the problem.


    Your statement is vague to the point of meaninglessness. “It is possible…”? “some [of] these…”? “They…” Tell us which renewables, exactly, and cite references showing how they are EROEI negative, then we can discuss it. I’m not sure which is worse, the thought that you and Biello are paid by Exxon, or that you are just that negative about everything you didn’t know before you were 9.

    OF COURSE solar, wind and efficiency can be scaled up. We know that because they already have been. OF COURSE they produce net energy. We know that because they already have, and do, from numerous studies and simple math. Spurious arguments, the next line of defense by denialists whenever their `Global warming isn’t real’ lies get laughed at. I see these new right wing talking points all over, and see them debunked. Like all denialist arguments (Medieval warming…) they keep coming back. Stop talking about what you either know nothing about, or get a different job. Do something that will help humanity avoid climate catastrophe.

    Of course we have to construct much of the next generation of renewables with fossil fuels. Anyone with an IQ bigger than a goat has known that for decades. Anyone who has put solar panels on their house or built a windmill or looked into either knows efficiency is the first step. It makes me wonder why this article is here, in what I thought was a reputable source. I wonder why we haven’t done those things already. If people like Biello, and lamorpa hadn’t been dragging for 40 years, we’d have a civilization as efficient as Europe (1/2 our energy use) or Japan (1/4). We’d have advanced technologies in solar and wind already and would be worried about climate. But here we are, 2 late and by decades, 2 stupid by half, misled by people like you, so crash programs are needed and every ton of CO2 brings us closer to starvation, chaos, war and extinction.

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  11. 11. J4zonian 10:13 pm 06/30/2011


    You disprove your own point: “if energy isn’t stored…”. So let’s store it, why don’t we? And that’s not the only alternative. Wind and solar are already paired. Combining them with efficiency, a smart grid with vehicles as movable batteries, pumped storage, ( ) and changes in lifestyles will take care of the complementary variability. If the only thing you’ll accept to replace the old non-functioning system is a system exactly like the old one in every way, you’re screwed, aren’t you?

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  12. 12. Dr. Strangelove 10:32 pm 06/30/2011

    Mr. Biello,

    Errors again in your article. "Oil is cheaper than any mineral you can buy" Clay is a mineral used in making bricks. It’s free. You can get it from soil. Crude oil costs over $100 a barrel or 70 cents per kg. Scrap iron costs 17 cents per kg.

    "biofuels –can do more harm than good. It’s insane. It’s taking food from the mouths of babies" You can make biodiesel from jatropha. Babies don’t eat jatropha. It’s used for making dye. It’s toxic.

    Btw, it’s not a problem that you need oil to make photovoltaic cells. You only need a small amount of oil to make solar cells and they will last for 25 yrs. How much oil will you save in 25 yrs? I bet more than the oil you used.

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  13. 13. anumakonda.jagadeesh 2:06 am 07/20/2011

    I agree with you Prof.Vaclav Smil. All Renewable Energy Gadgets are energy intensive. There used to be a saying that the amount of energy that goes into the production of solar cell can never be recovered during its lifetime as solar energy harnessing requires energy intensive aluminum,steel,copper etc.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert

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