By Alex Kimani
Climate change is no longer a fiery apocalypse that we expect to happen in the far-off future. Rising sea levels, wild-fires, heatwaves, and extreme weather events are already wreaking havoc everywhere even as we speak and could cost the global economy a staggering $1 trillion dollars over the next five years in crumbling infrastructure, reduced crop yields, health problems, and lost labor as per the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).
Climate change is real, and its effects are clearly devastating: Since January 2019, we have recorded no less than three dozen extreme weather events across the globe, exacerbated by climate change. Each event caused more than $1 billion in damage, with nearly 10 causing more than $10 billion in damages. According to NASA, the earth’s average surface temperature in 2020 tied with 2016 for the hottest years on record, making the last seven years the seven hottest on record.
There’s little doubt that large-scale use of fossil fuels tops the list of factors contributing to climate change. So, the million-dollar question becomes, “We know that oil contributes to climate change and other environmental problems; then, why do we still use it? Why don’t we just quit already? Why is the concentrated energy provided by fossil fuels proving so hard to replace?”
Unfortunately, any discussion about the energy transition usually pits oil vs. renewables and quickly degenerates into another predictable polarization story.
On one side of the discussion are Republicans like Texas Governor Greg Abbot and former President Trump who more often than not tend to blame environmentalists and renewable energy for the constant barrage of blackouts and extreme weather events.
In the midst of the infamous Texas freeze that left tens of millions of residents without power or heat, Abbott appeared on Fox News on Tuesday to bash the Green New Deal. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott told host Sean Hannity. “Our wind and our solar got shut down–and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid.”
Last year, former President Trump blasted California’s forest management, telling the state government, “You gotta clean your floors“, and blaming the state’s rolling blackouts on too much wind and solar.
Then, of course, there are climate deniers like Michael Shellenberger, author of the controversial book Apocalypse Never, who recently apologized on behalf of environmentalists for the “climate scare we created over the last 30 years.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum are Democrats who have been calling out fossil fuel emissions, including some like VP Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, who have called for an immediate ban on fracking.
It’s an old story, and one that will probably continue for many years to come.
The renewables conundrum
Yet, environmentalists who call for an abrupt end to fossil fuels and a sudden adoption of renewable energy fail to recognize the obvious illogic of this. It is not possible in this particular reality to simply ditch fossil fuels for renewable energy. That’s why it’s called an energy “transition”–a word that seems to elude the masses and the mass media despite its glaring simplicity. Alas, “transitions” don’t sell headlines. Absolutes do.
In sum, the story of energy transitions through history has been a constant move toward fuels that are more energy-dense and convenient to use than the fuels they replaced.
Fossil fuels are simply more energy dense than other energy sources.
At 53.1 MJ/kg, natural gas boasts the highest energy density of any fossil fuel, followed by gasoline at 45.8MJ/kg and coal at 30.2MJ/kg.
Lithium-ion batteries–one of the most effective ways to store renewable energy–can only afford an energy density of 0.504MJ/kg.
Greater energy density means that a smaller weight or volume of fuel is needed to do the job. Liquid fuels made from oil combine energy density with the ability to flow or be moved by pumps, an advantage that opened up new technologies, especially in transportation. And electricity is, of course, a very flexible way of consuming energy and useful for many diverse applications.
As Brookings, a nonprofit public policy organization, contributor Samantha Gross notes:
“The energy density of fossil fuels is particularly important in the transportation sector. A vehicle needs to carry its fuel around as it travels, so the weight and volume of that fuel are key. Electric vehicles are a much-touted solution for replacing oil, but they are not perfect for all uses. Pound for pound, gasoline or diesel fuel contain about 40 times as much energy as a state-of-the-art battery. On the other hand, electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines and electric vehicles are simpler mechanically, with many fewer moving parts. These advantages make up for some of the battery’s weight penalty, but an electric vehicle will still be heavier than a similar vehicle running on fossil fuel. For vehicles that carry light loads and can refuel often, like passenger cars, this penalty isn’t a big deal. But for aviation, maritime shipping, or long-haul trucking, where the vehicle must carry heavy loads for long distances without refueling, the difference in energy density between fossil fuels and batteries is a huge challenge, and electric vehicles just don’t meet the need.”
Heavy industrial processes that need very high heat, such as the production of steel, cement, and glass, pose another challenge.
Biofuels can help overcome this, but they, too, come with their own set of challenges. They use arable land needed for food production, needing large areas to generate just a small amount of fuel, and won’t typically cut greenhouse gas emissions without technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Another pathway can be converting renewable energy into combustible fuels such as hydrogen or ammonia. Unfortunately, it could be a decade or more before green hydrogen can compete with gasoline or natural gas on a cost basis. As S&P notes, the green hydrogen production costs need to fall by over 50% to $2.0-$2.5/kg by 2030 to make hydrogen competitive with conventional fuels. S&P, however, says blue hydrogen (steam reforming of fossil fuels plus CCS) could help achieve this goal sooner.
In other words, some major sectors of our economy could take decades to fully electrify.
Weak Power Grids
Our old and decrepit energy grids might be the weakest link in the energy transition.
Modern renewable energy systems are mostly designed with current weather patterns in mind, meaning they could be totally ill-equipped to meet our ever-growing power demands as our climate continues to evolve.
Scientists at Lausanne, Switzerland-based EPFL have built up a stochastic-robust optimization simulation method that tries to replicate both standard varieties and extreme weather events and published their findings in Nature.com. The scientists have examined the effect of weather extremes and variations on both the energy demand and the resilience of our energy supply systems–and it’s not good news.
“We observed that current energy systems are designed in a way that makes them highly susceptible to extreme weather events such as storms and heatwaves. We also found that climate variability will result in significant fluctuations in renewable power being fed into grids as well as energy demand. This will make it difficult to match energy demand and renewable power generation. Dealing with the effects of climate change is going to prove harder than we previously thought.”
According to Dasun Perera, a scientist at EPFL’s Solar Energy and Building Physics Laboratory (LESO-PB), everybody appears to be focusing on how our existing energy systems are negatively affecting our climate while paying little or no attention to the reverse: How changing weather systems are impacting our energy systems and grids.
The researchers subjected 30 cities throughout Sweden—including at northerly and more southerly latitudes—to the stress tests and applied 13 climate change scenarios. They discovered that future climate variations and uncertainties in renewable energy potential and demand could lead to significant performance gaps that would manifest as deteriorating power supply reliability. Indeed, the scientists say that under extreme weather conditions, hourly demand for heating and cooling across Sweden’s current residential housing stock could be 50% to 400% higher than the historical 20-year average.
In other words, our energy systems could fall woefully short as far as meeting our energy demands goes if we continue designing them according to our historical weather and climate data.
Biden’s $2 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan is a good start, but it would take at least $7 trillion to upgrade the national grid.
Biden has set a goal of making the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050, which will require steeper emissions cuts than the country has ever achieved.
Durable climate policy requires securing buy-in from a range of actors, including politicians from both parties, business leaders, and civil society. But as the New York Times posed last year, that depends on “whether any climate policy is both big enough to matter and popular enough to happen.”