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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Soaring Electricity Demand Poses Climate Change Threat

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One of the biggest drivers of climate change is the on-going development of third world nations. Around the globe, countries that have spent centuries with economies largely built on subsistence agriculture are slowly starting to advance into the modern world. This is bad news for those concerned about climate change. As modern economies develop, electrical use outstrips population growth which, in turn, is creating more and more need for energy. The World Bank notes that while the global population grew 36 percent between 1990 and 2013, worldwide energy use increased by 54 percent.

At this point around 85 percent of the world’s population has electricity, but that still leaves 15 percent of people without it. The remaining segments of the global population without basic amenities of modern life are likely to eventually advance enough to acquire them, which will put even more strain on the global energy infrastructure.

While clean energy sources have made significant strides over the last 30 years, fossil fuels are still responsible for more than 80 percent of the world’s total energy generation. What’s more, the largest share of renewable energy actually comes from traditional biomass like wood fuel, agricultural by-products, and dung. This is not sustainable over the long run because, as much as trees are theoretically a renewable resource, the reality is that they renew too slowly to serve as a primary substitute for oil and natural gas. Traditional biomass use is not being done out of environmental concerns in most cases, but out of necessity and lack of options. Solar and wind power only account for around 1 percent of total energy generation needs each, which shows that despite the progress made in both areas, neither is even close to be a replacement for fossil fuels at this point. Related: Is OPEC A U.S. National Security Threat?

What’s more, renewable energy use is actually declining or stagnant in most parts of the world. Since 1990, only North America and Europe have seen renewable energy use increase as a percentage of overall energy generation. Sub-saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and East Asia have all seen renewable energy sources decline as a percentage of total generation results.

The one positive side of all of this is that the entire world, across all income groups, is using energy more efficiently today than in 1990. The ratio of energy supply to GDP in purchasing power parity terms has fallen across every quartile of global economic income levels. This essentially means that the world is using less energy to produce each dollar of economic output. That doesn’t mean energy use is declining – quite the opposite in fact. But it does mean that the world is getting better at figuring out how to use energy efficiently to generate the goods and services that modern society demands.

The World Bank’s data sheds empirical light on a number of interest questions for investors. Related: Oil Prices Spike Ahead Of Inventory Reports

First, while solar power has made considerable progress in recent years, it literally could grow ten-fold in the next ten years and still only be meeting a small fraction of the world’s energy needs. The runway for solar power is either very long or very hyped up depending on one’s perspective.

Second, the battle against climate change is very far from won, and it may in fact be unwinnable given the unstoppable force of economic expansion that will continue to drive greater energy needs for decades to come.

Third, renewables are clearly becoming increasingly important in the first world countries. This also means that the future of coal – the least economical and useful of the major fossil fuel groups – is likely to be based on the needs of the third world. Coal’s competition in these areas of the world is not solar or wind, nor is it even natural gas or oil. Instead, for coal to stage a comeback it needs to economically compete with and displace trees and dung as sources of heat and lighting. That’s probably a tall order in the foreseeable future.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com


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  • JHM on May 24 2016 said:
    The author's opinion is not well supported by data.

    In 2014, world production of electricity was 23,536 TWh, which has grown just under 3% annually since 2004. This the world needs to add about 700 TWh each year.

    In 2015, the world added 64 GW of wind and 57 GW of solar capacity. Using US capacity factors, this is enough incremental wind and solar to produce 325 TWh annually.

    Thus, wind and solar supplied over 46% of incremental electricity needed in production.

    Considering also that wind installations are growing about 15% each year and solar 30%. These two renewables should be able to supply all incremental capacity needed in 2019 and beyond.

    It is simply wishful thinking to imagine some sort of renewed demand for coal on grounds that renewables cannot scale up quickly enough. Indeed I would suggest that the prices of coal and naturally gas have already been crushed by the intrusion of wind and solar. Just 121 GW of wind and solar is enough to displace 169 million short tons of annual coal demand. The rate of displacement will only increase as the costs of solar and wind fall.
  • Oilracle on May 25 2016 said:
    1+ molecule to 10000 from burning carbohydrates does not make any difference to the climate - the Sun does all the worming and cooling on Earth.
  • Bryan on May 25 2016 said:
    JHM...Your conclusions are invalid.

    Renewables are still not able to compete with Fossil Fuels in a Free Market. If you try to argue that they are currently doing so today, you are both foolish and uninformed. Without the subsidies they cannot compete...period (state govts and the Fed govt subsidizes solar approximately 326 times more than fossil fuels and in the U.S. the states with the most affordable energy costs do NOT financially support a renewable portfolio).

    Fossil Fuels are also required as back up generation for renewables due to their intermittency. Therefore you always need both systems (ie: renewables with a reliable back up source, fossil fuels).

    Third world countries will always move towards the most abundant and most affordable energy option unless pressured by 1st world nations. That is why COP21 is nothing but a money distribution scheme meant to bribe the 3rd world into using renewables.

    There is a place for renewables, but the technology is not mature enough to replace fossil fuels yet. Claiming other wise is just propaganda.
  • NIck Schroeder, BSME, PE on May 25 2016 said:
    The Great Climate Change Bamboozle

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
    H. L. Mencken

    Earth’s carbon cycle contains 46,713 Gt (E15 gr) +/- 850 GT of stores and reservoirs with a couple hundred fluxes Gt/y +/- ?? ebbing and flowing between those reservoirs. Mankind’s gross contribution over 260 years was 555 Gt or 1.2%. (IPCC AR5 Fig 6.1) Mankind’s net contribution, 240 Gt or 0.53%, (dry labbed by IPCC to make the numbers work) to this bubbling, churning caldron of carbon/carbon dioxide is 4 Gt/y +/- 96%. (IPCC AR5 Table 6.1) Seems relatively trivial to me. IPCC et. al. says natural variations can’t explain the increase in CO2. With these tiny percentages and high levels of uncertainty how would anybody even know?
    Mankind’s alleged atmospheric CO2 power flux (watt is power, energy over time) increase between 1750 and 2011, 260 years, was 2 W/m^2 of radiative forcing. (IPCC AR5 Fig SPM.5) Incoming solar RF is 340 W/m^2, albedo RF reflects 100 W/m^2 +/- 30 (can’t be part of the 333), 160 W/m^2 reaches the surface (can’t be part of the 333), latent heat RF from the water cycle’s evaporation is 88 W/m2 +/- 8. Mankind’s 2 W/m^2 contribution is obviously trivial, lost in the natural fluctuations.

    One popular GHE theory power flux balance (“Atmospheric Moisture…. Trenberth et. al. 2011 Figure 10) has a spontaneous perpetual loop (333 W/m^2) flowing from cold to hot violating three fundamental thermodynamic laws. (1. Spontaneous energy out of nowhere, 2. perpetual loop w/o work, 3. cold to hot w/o work, 4. doesn’t matter because what’s in the system stays in the system) Physics must be optional for “climate” science. What really counts is the net RF balance at ToA which 7 out of 8 re-analyses considered by the above cited paper concluded the atmosphere was cooling, not warming, +/- 12.3 W/m^2. Of course Trenberth says they are all wrong because their cooling results are not confirmed by his predicted warming, which hasn’t happened for twenty years.

    Every year the pause/hiatus/lull/stasis continues (IPCC AR5 Box TS.3) IPCC’s atmospheric and ocean general circulation models diverge further from reality.

    As Carl Sagan observed, we have been bamboozled, hustled, conned by those wishing to steal our money and rob us of our liberties. Hardly a new agenda.

    BTW I have a BSME same as Bill Nye so I’m as much a scientist as he is.



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