Researchers at Rice University’s Baker Institute released a new report Monday warning of the human and economic costs of moving too rapidly to a desired “energy transition” from fossil fuels to renewables and electric vehicles. The study, authored by Gabe Collins, Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs at the Baker Institute, and Michelle Michot Foss, fellow in energy, minerals and materials, warns that a premature transition would result in consumers across the globe feeling “energy price pain” on even basic necessities such as food.
The study notes that past energy transitions, such as from wood to coal and from coal to oil, took decades to come to fruition and involved moves from less energy-dense sources to more energy-dense fuels. That is not the case with the current energy transition, which proposes a rapid move from high-density to low-density energy sources. Given that and other realities, the authors warn that the negative human and economic impacts from government and investor efforts to force the transition too rapidly “risks destabilizing a global energy-food-water-human well-being nexus that, sufficiently perturbed, would likely delay energy transition efforts for decades.”
Europe is currently experiencing a winter energy crisis stemming directly from efforts by governments and investors there to prematurely force a shift from coal, natural gas, and nuclear in power generation to wind and other renewable energy sources, and we now see many of the higher costs and human impacts predicted in this study playing out in real-time. We also see Vladimir Putin taking advantage of the geopolitical leverage his country’s position as Europe’s major natural gas supplier provide him in the scenario playing out today vis a vis Ukraine.
The study’s authors go on to note that the messaging and narrative used to promote this energy transition fails to fully account for the major role fossil fuels like oil and natural gas currently play directly in the manufacture, distribution and operation of the renewable energy sources and electric vehicles that are the transition’s chosen rent-seeking industrial clients:
- “…oil and gas literally form the physical building blocks of the wind turbines and solar panels the world now craves. Wind turbines would not exist without fiberglass and thermoset plastics. Solar photovoltaics would not be possible without plexiglass. Electric vehicles, meanwhile, embed large amounts of energy (and carbon) in their batteries and many kilograms (kg) of plastic and other petroleum-derived materials,” the report says at one point;
- In the next paragraph, the authors note that “A Tesla Model 3, the world’s bestselling full-size EV to date, contains approximately 200 kg of plastics, rubber, and textiles— virtually all of which are petroleum derived. The plastics content of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will likely increase as automakers use advanced polymers to reduce weight and accommodate heavy batteries to push the performance envelope. And battery packs themselves will likely incorporate more plastics for weight and safety.”
The authors also note the role that natural gas generation plays in providing backup capacity for wind and solar installations on the world’s power grids, along with the reality that, even with battery backup, global natural gas generation capacity will of necessity have to dramatically increase along with new wind and solar. This is far from the ‘delete and replace’ tradeoff regularly advertised by proponents of the energy transition.
The study goes onto discuss another inconvenient truth transition proponents regularly dismiss, having to do with materials intensity associated with so-called “green” energy sources. “Materials intensity associated with energy transition technologies like wind, solar, battery storage for grids, and battery EVs exceeds that of conventional technologies because of lower energy density. In fact, the pronounced tradeoff between energy density and materials intensity represents an enormous gap in energy transition thinking, analysis, and policymaking,” the authors report.
What it all adds up to is a situation in which the messaging and narrative around this much-promoted transition fails to convey proper information about its real costs and limited ability to deliver on its promises. With a real-world demonstration of these failures to deliver and very real economic and human costs playing out across the European continent today, leaders in the rest of the world would do well to pay close attention to this study from the Baker Institute.
By David Blackmon for Oilprice.com
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