Can We Really Switch Completely Away From Fossil Fuels?

Ed. Note: Alternate version can be found at this link:

This is one of the most important questions facing humanity and its political leaders.

Here’s why. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) have been powering our industrial civilization for over a century now. When they are burned to produce heat energy, the process sends large quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases into our atmosphere. By their presence, they increase the trapping of solar radiant heat energy on the Earth’s surface, beneath that atmosphere.

The rising concentrations of these “greenhouse gases” produces extra global warming (above the historical levels producing mild and habitable temperatures for humanity). The extra warming leads to more frequent, more powerful, and more costly tornados, hurricanes, and droughts, the burning of forests and crops, greater flooding, bigger mudslides, and a variety of additional adverse environmental consequences like sea level rise, acidification of our oceans, killing of coral reefs, and the extinction of many species of plants and animals — the terrible fate of run-away global warming.

What I Used to Believe. For most of my 40-year career as a solar energy scientist, I believed we could avoid the worst of these difficulties by switching mostly over to a variety of clean, renewable energy sources — just not all the way and just not quickly.

“But what about when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing?” The answer, for a long time, has been that we could still use fossil fuels as the (seemingly) best energy storage media they have become, but burning them only when the good stuff — wind and solar energy — are not immediately available. Eventually, we hoped, the fraction of energy still generated by fossil fuels would become small, greatly reducing the problem.

Difficulties would remain, however. If this transition were too slow, it wouldn’t matter if it eventually succeeded. We’d still be stuck with a lot of problems.

One I saw 40 years ago was the high cost of most solar and wind technologies.

If we are going to replace our previously faithful fossil fuels with wind and solar, can we afford it? Now the answer is clear.

In the last couple of decades, the costs to site, build, and operate wind turbines and solar panels have fallen dramatically and installing them has become a much quicker and easier process than the siting, design, and construction of fossil fuel fired plants.

In many energy markets around the world, renewable source costs have now reached and are going below what Al Gore calls the “grid parity” point, at which such a source generates electricity at less than or equal to the price of buying power from the electric grid. According to various sources, PV has reached this status in 22 U.S. states. It is expected to reach 20 more in 4 years.

But, can we go all the way?

As we expand toward 100% renewable sources, utility companies can see revenues fall as more and more of their customers begin producing their own electrical power. Last century, most utilities, invested in a lot of coal-, oil-, and natural-gas-fired generating plants. If these are forced to remain mostly idle, they’ll become “sunk” or “stranded” investments. Even if the utilities invested heavily in renewable energy, the resulting system would still have all those “albatross” properties, idle fossil fuel plants earning insufficient income to pay off the loans used to build them.

Rooftop PV: Easy and Quick to Install

A better way is being pioneered across the nation. Utilities are restructuring toward becoming not commodity sellers of electricity from a mostly fossil fuel mix, but toward managers of a distributed grid containing a variety of sources, some owned by “holding companies” and others owned by independent producers and even their own customers.

“Power Towers” near Seville, Spain receive concentrated solar radiation from fields of heliostats, making steam to power electric generators

Computerized electricity dispatching systems are being used to automatically buy and sell electricity on a relatively open market from all these sources and to all customers. The least expensive source is used for each of several groups of users. Both buyers and sellers are free to purchase and install energy sources governed only by the current wholesale price of that electricity and government regulators.

As this system advances and as renewable energy prices fall, more and more entities are buying into this system, including small and large businesses and homeowners. They are purchasing and installing solar PV arrays, wind turbines, and whatever else is economical at the time.

Governments and electric utilities are scrambling to adjust their regulatory rules and business plans to fit within the new market-based regime. To ease this transition toward a constantly increasing fraction of renewable energy, governments are — some would say slowly — passing new regulations and novel new enabling legislation to accelerate the conversion to an all-renewable, fossil-fuel-free world.

Let’s hope the transition continues to accelerate, with accelerated declines in fossil fuel combustion, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and stopping climate change in its tracks, even reducing the carbon dioxide and methane content of our atmosphere down to safe levels — before it’s too late!

Dr. McCluney’s more comprehensive discussion of this subject, with graphics and hyperlinks, can be found here. He holds BA, MS, and PhD degrees in physics, worked as an optical engineer at Eastman Kodak Company; as an optical oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; and for 31 years at the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research institute in Cocoa, FL of the University of Central Florida. He became an environmental activist with the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and other environmental groups while a grad student at the University of Miami, helped organize UM’s campus-wide, day-long observance of the first Earth Day Teach-In, 1970, and edited a collection of essays on south Florida environmental topics, an outgrowth of the Teach-In, published by the University of Miami Press in 1971. He also authored two chapters in The Final Energy Crisis ed by A. McKillop and S. Newman. He is an author and editor of two books on the environmental crisis and earth ethics, respectively. He’s also a popular lecturer on environmental, energy, and climate change subjects.



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