If you think we’ve been doing a reasonable job of curbing fossil fuel use, you are sadly mistaken. Global energy demand grew yet again in 2018, by 2.3%, its fastest pace in ten years. 70% of that was provided by fossil fuel, and only 30% by renewables and nuclear.

America is awash in new oil, recently setting a new record of 12 million barrels/day.
America is awash in new oil, recently setting a new record of 12 million barrels/day. DOE EERE
Until growth in renewables exceeds that of fossil fuels, and by a lot, we will make no headway against the environmental problems we need to solve in the next two decades.

Renewables and fully electric vehicles aside, all fossil fuels are increasing worldwide primarily because of economic growth in the developing world. Even coal is increasing worldwide, producing more power than hydro, nuclear and renewables combined.

While the developed world is switching from coal to natural gas, the developing world sees coal as their savior. This not because coal is cheapest – it’s not.

Of all energy sources, coal is merely the easiest to set up. Coal is the easiest to install in a poor or developing country that has little existing infrastructure. It is the easiest to transport – by ship, rail and truck. It is straightforward to build a coal-fired power plant. And to operate it.

China is taking advantage of this situation with their ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, a 21st century version of the Silk Road that plans to build over a trillion dollars of infrastructure in developing countries, making those countries major commercial partners with, and majorly dependent on, China.

While it is easiest to build a natural gas-fired power plant, it is not at all easy to support it. Natural gas requires more infrastructure than any other energy source – for transporting the gas in pipelines, liquefying facilities and special terminals; and for storing it, often deep underground in geologic formations.

In the developing world, large-scale renewables are not effective since there is no baseload to support them, no back-up sources to load-follow the intermittency, and no extensive high-voltage distribution system. Hydro is possible in the developing world, but is limited physiographically.

No, coal is the obvious energy source to bring a country’s starving people up into the modern world. After that, they may have the luxury to care about the planet. And that’s the seemingly insurmountable hurdle facing any plan to mitigate global warming.

Just ask China.

So don’t look for coal to decrease anytime soon on the global stage.

On the other hand, natural gas accounted for nearly half of the world’s growth in energy demand last year, increasing by almost 5%, with most of the higher consumption coming from China and the United States, says International Energy Agency.

Oil demand increased by almost 600 million barrels last year.

As a result of new fracking technologies that expanded dramatically in 2010, onshore tight oil… [+] development continues to be the main driver of total U.S. crude oil production, and should grow to almost 70% of domestic production by 2030. The U.S.is now a net exporter of petroleum.
As a result of new fracking technologies that expanded dramatically in 2010, onshore tight oil… [+] EIA
And the United States was right there to provide it (see figure). For the first time in history, the United States is producing over 12 million barrels of crude oil per day. Wells in Texas, offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, and in Oklahoma reached record production levels.

Although coal demand continues to drop in America, natural gas consumption rose to its highest level since record-keeping began in the 1970s.

Renewables have grown rapidly relative to themselves, but are still small with respect to fossil fuel growth. In fact, just the growth in fossil fuel last year exceeded the growth in renewables over the same time period. China emplaced over 6x the amount of renewable energy than the United States did, but that didn’t make a dent in their emissions since they emplaced a lot more coal and gas, and produced even more oil.

Nuclear and hydro are level worldwide, and are predicted to grow only moderately in the next few decades.

Your response to these numbers will depend on your view of the world. If you care about climate change, it should alarm you, especially since last month was the hottest June on record since we began to measure such things in the 1880s.

If you don’t care, you may be ecstatic at the sheer magnitude of energy humans are harnessing. And this energy is the cheapest it’s been in the history of Homo sapiens. With new drilling technologies that include walking drill rigs that pick themselves up and walk to the next site, it’s just become too easy to get fossil fuels out of the ground (see figure).

New technology has revolutionized drilling, like Patterson-UTI’s APEX WALKING® drill rig shown here… [+] in West Texas. This rig uses hydraulic feet to ‘walk’ from one drill site to another.
New technology has revolutionized drilling, like Patterson-UTI’s APEX WALKING® drill rig shown here… [+] PATTERSON-UTI
On the other hand, more energy means less poverty. In the developing world, there are still over a billion people that have no access to electricity, whatsoever. 2 billion people still burn wood and manure as their main source of energy. And 3 billion more people will be born in the next 30 years.

This is a lot of people that will require a lot of energy. Just to survive. To have a reasonable life, they will need at least 3,000 kWhs per person per year. Together with everyone else, that’s about 35 trillion kWhs per year, 40% more than all the electricity produced in the world today, and the minimum amount of energy needed to eradicate global poverty and its evil stepchildren, war and terrorism.

We can do this with or without fossil fuels. To do it with fossil fuels just means continuing on with business as usual. To do it without fossil fuels means some major changes, the minimum being:

  • stop building any new fossil fuel plants as soon as possible
  • 3,500,000 new MW of wind turbines (12 trillion kWhs/year)
  • 1,400,000 MW new nuclear reactors, particularly SMRs that are especially ideal for load-following renewables (11 trillion kWhs/year)
  • 2,100,000 MW of new solar (7 trillion kWhs/year)
  • 1,200,000 new MW of hydro w/80,000 MW existing (7 trillion kWhs/yr)
  • secure sources of Li, Co, Fe and other metals needed to build these alternatives, especially to build the batteries for enough fully electric vehicles to replace oil.
  • build a fleet of 3 billion fully electric vehicles by 2050, much fewer will not sufficiently drop our consumption of oil.

It turns out that the cost of this new low-carbon mix is about the same as business-as-usual, $65 trillion versus $63 trillion, over about 30 years. It’s just that more of the total cost is in up-front capital costs instead of fuel costs – $28 trillion versus $11 trillion. It will take over 12 billion tons of steel alone for that much renewables.

It might not be possible in our present global political climate to achieve a truly low-carbon energy world, but we really should try.