David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
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."