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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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The Harsh Reality Of A Global Energy Transition


I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world's energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

The group was astonished when I revealed the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.

I hadn't included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world's best dam sites have been taken.

The category "Biofuels and waste," which makes up 9.7 percent of the world total, includes small slivers of what we Americans call biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), I said, but mostly represents the deforestation of the planet through the use of wood for daily fuel in many poor countries, hardly a sustainable practice that warrants vast expansion. (This percentage has been roughly the same since 1973 though the absolute consumption has more than doubled as population has climbed sharply.) The burden for renewable energy expansion, I concluded, would therefore remain on the six categories I mentioned at the outset of my presentation.

As if to underline this worrisome state of affairs, the MIT Technology Review just days later published a piece with a rather longish title: "At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system."

In my presentation I had explained to my listeners that renewable energy is not currently displacing fossil fuel capacity, but rather supplementing it. In fact, I related, the U.S. government's own Department of Energy with no sense of alarm whatsoever projects that world fossil fuel consumption will actually rise through 2050. This would represent a climate catastrophe, I told my audience, and cannot be allowed to happen.

And yet, the MIT piece affirms that this is our destination on our current trajectory. The author writes that "even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem." Related: The Truth About Aramco’s $2 Trillion Valuation

All this merely serves to elicit the question: What would it take to do what scientists think we need to do to reduce greenhouse gases?

The MIT piece suggests that a total mobilization of society akin to what happened in World War II would have to occur and be maintained for decades to accomplish the energy transition we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Few people alive today were alive back then. A somewhat larger group has parents who lived through World War II and so have some inkling of what such a mobilization would involve. It's hard enough to imagine this group agreeing that their household consumption should be curtailed significantly for decades (through taxes, higher prices and perhaps even rationing) to make way for huge societal investments in vast new wind and solar deployments; electricity storage for all that renewable electricity; mass transit; deep energy retrofits for buildings; energy-efficient vehicles; and even revised diets that are less meat-intensive and thereby less energy-intensive. Even harder to image is the much larger group with a more tenuous or nonexistent connection to the World War II experience embracing such a path.

The trouble with waiting, of course, is that climate change does not wait for us, and also that it shows up with multi-decadal lags. The effects of greenhouse gases emitted decades ago are only now registering on the world's thermometers. That means that when climate conditions finally become so destructive as to move the public and the politicians to do something big enough to make a difference, it will likely be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.

One scientist cited by the MIT piece believes that a rise of more than 2 degrees C in global temperature is all but inevitable and that human society would be "lucky" to avoid a rise of 4 degrees by 2100.


But since each increment of temperature rise will inflict more damage, the scientist says, we would be wise to seek to limit temperature rise as much as we are able (even though the odds are now overwhelmingly against staying below a 2-degree rise). No longer are we faced with prevention so much as mitigation and management. That's still something, and it provides a way forward that doesn't rely on an increasingly unrealistic goal.

By Kurt Cobb via Resource Insights

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  • Josh Gregner on March 19 2018 said:
    I fully agree. The transition away from fossil fuels is long, cumbersome and vast. However, the 1.5% share is not a serious number: trying to substitute all fuels listed as "World total primary energy supply (TPES)" would not just be expensive and slow but also foolish: this primary energy supply includes the vast waste (sorry - I meant to say "energy losses") when converting primary energy into something useful.

    From fuel burning car's (carnot efficiency dictates that in the ideal case about 60% of the fuel's energy is lost), over steam driven power plants all the way to chemical processing plants that have "waste heat" - burning fuel is rarely efficient if you compare primary energy requirements with actual miles driven, kWh electricity produced etc.

    So yes, a call to action is in order. And yes, we need to do so much more to advance climate neutral energy sources. But let's not have a primary energy supply discussion - I don't think that's helpful.
  • bartek on March 19 2018 said:
    Snowing in Italy today. What global warming? We should be worried about global cooling which would require even more fossil fuels to keep us warm.
  • John on March 19 2018 said:
    It is unbelievable that people are clueless regarding this issue!
    I thought that people do actually use the INTERNET for educational purposes since it is all free. I've spent 15 years in the oil industry and I was fully aware of the problem (last two years I am not adding since they've sacked us), but this thing is real and it is not going anywhere.
    Look at Mars and Venus (one has no atmosphere and the other is a greenhouse gas paradise) and draw your own conclusions.
    I welcome bigger oil prices on my own accord, but saving the planet comes first.
    please restrict cars on using diesel and limit the engines to 1000ccm, since the tech is here to address this issue without consequences, cars can still go fast!
  • Eli on March 20 2018 said:
    Besides wind , tidal , solar , geothermal ... to slowly replacing the coal and gas,
    the only quick solution is to go 4th~5th Generation nuclear (first fission, while always waiting 5~15years for fusion to be readied), which is much safer and cleaner than the current 2~3rd Gen Nuclear used all over the world.
  • Lee James on March 20 2018 said:
    A quick look at reader comments suggests that we have reason for pessimism about replacing fossil fuel anytime soon. However, new (additional) energy demand takes place at a reasonable pace, and a large percentage of new energy supply is clean.

    New energy supply is the bright spot. Now to hone our will and abilities and go after legacy energy supply!
  • Kurt Cobb on March 23 2018 said:
    I'm not sure what Mr. Gregner means when he says we shouldn't talk about primary energy production. All of our energy starts out as primary energy production. Some of that energy is turned into electricity (secondary energy). We can certainly be far more efficient in our use of energy as he rightly points out.

    I suggest just such energy efficiency in my piece. But primary energy generation is where all energy starts. We can make our transition to renewable energy easier if we do two things: 1) dramatically reduce our energy consumption through conversation (simply using less) and 2) efficiency measures (which can give us the same services with fewer BTUs or kwhs). Both responses would mean that we'd have to replace less than 100 percent of our current capacity. But, of course, we keep growing our total energy use and within that our total use of fossil fuels. These trends would have to turn around in order for us to achieve what scientists tell us we must achieve by 2050.
  • Rohit Bhonagiri on April 05 2018 said:
    Mr Cobb,

    Can you please share your source for the 1.5% figure? Becuase according to IEA's 2015 report the number was 22% by 2013.


    Also until we have reliable and affordable storage mechanism for intermittent renewables, and a good understanding of cyclicality for bioenergy sources fossil fuels will provide the majority of the baseload. I agree with parts of your perception and would like to add that governments and companies must research renewables with more intensity like we did with microprocessors and space tech to speed the evolution of these sources.

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