Alternate energy sources still a far-off dream

The annual global energy outlook released by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) is a timely, if sobering, reminder of the enduring place of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix.

By Jock Finlayson

Vancouver - The annual global energy outlook released by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) is a timely, if sobering, reminder of the enduring place of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix.

Energy demand and supply patterns change only slowly, and despite the earnest wishes of politicians and environmentalists, shifting away from existing carbon-intensive energy systems will take generations, not years.

The main fossil fuel-based energy sources that largely satisfy the consumption needs of the world's population have a bright future.

Blame it all on economic growth

According to the IEA, even if governments around the globe fully deliver on the commitments they have made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and phase out fossil fuel subsidies - a very big "if" - world primary energy demand is still projected to rise by 36 per cent between 2008 and 2035, almost wholly due to economic growth and rising incomes in emerging markets.

Fossil fuels account for more than half of the increase in energy use to 2035, with oil remaining the dominant individual source of energy (albeit its share diminishes over time). World oil demand is expected to increase by 15 million barrels to reach 99 million barrels per day by 2035, with virtually all of the incremental demand coming from emerging economies.

Among the advanced economies that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), demand for oil drops by six million barrels per day over the same period. According to the IEA's projections, coal-fired electricity generation continues to expand on a global basis.

The IEA also shines a spotlight on the growing importance of natural gas in the energy equation. While consumption fell in 2009 as the global economic downturn took its toll on demand, use of natural gas is poised to climb by 44 per cent by 2035, outpacing growth in demand for all other fossil fuels.

Natural gas is a low-cost energy source, it is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel, and gas-fired power plants can be built in proximity to population centres in a relatively short period of time. Natural gas consumption is projected by the IEA to grow the fastest in China, but the fuel is also becoming more popular in many other markets, including in North America.

What about the various renewable, carbon-free energy sources touted by environmentalists and supported by many governments? With "new policies" in place, the IEA hopes that renewables can supply one-third of the world's electricity needs by 2035, up from one-fifth today. Hydro-power and wind are the chief beneficiaries of this increase, although solar, geothermal and bio-mass will also play bigger roles as sources of electricity in the future.

All of this underscores the immense challenges involved in shifting energy systems away from existing fuel sources and infrastructure, a point long emphasized by Canadian scholar Vaclav Smil.

As Professor Smil noted in an article on trends in U.S. energy consumption published in 2009:

"It took 45 years for the U.S. to raise its crude oil use to 20 per cent of the total energy supply; natural gas needed 65 years to do the same. As for electricity generation, coal produced 66 per cent of the total in 1950 and still 49 per cent in 2007 - wind-driven generation now produces 1.5 per cent and solar photovoltaic a fraction of that. Whatever the eventual solution, whether it is converting the country's filling stations to natural gas or hydrogen, or building new long-distance transmission lines to carry Arizona's solar electricity to New York and North Dakota's wind power to California, the new requisite infrastructures are unlikely to be completed in the next few years."

It's hard to see how carbon-free energy can be expanded on the scale necessary to make a significant difference to the global energy supply mix in the next decade. The reality is that the world's energy system in 2020 is apt to look very similar to the one that exists today.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice-president of the Business Council of British Columbia. This article first appeared in the Vancouver Sun and is reprinted here with the kind permmission of the author.

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