The Four Inconvenient Truths of the Clean Energy Transition

All is not well with the clean energy transition. Positive commentary on the progress of the transition is frustrating. 2017 saw a 2% rise in global carbon emissions, and the concentration of CO2 has surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in several million years.

The motivation for the clean energy transition cannot be stronger – preventing dangerous climate change. Yet even the potential violence of climate change is not counteracting historical realities.

This post highlights four reasons why the clean energy transition is failing. All four reflect the experience of previous transitions. All four are unwelcome.

I’m not arguing against the need for the clean energy transition. It’s something that has to happen a lot faster. I’m showing some of the truths behind why this transition is (and will continue to be) difficult. Only by understanding these historical realities we can take action to counteract them.

The primary source for these ideas is Vaclav Smil’s excellent work on energy transitions (book, lecture and another lecture). Smil is my favorite energy writer – prolific, confidentially numeric and intelligently contrarian. Smil’s work is for me the best on energy ever written.  I’ve also previously written about Smil’s work on carbon capture and storage.

The Four Inconvenient Truths of Energy Transitions

Energy transitions are key to the development of civilization. Muscle and wood powered our early days – today we burn coal and gas to drive turbines, oil to drive cars and can harness energy that powers stars.

Now we are moving toward clean and smart technologies – wind turbines, solar panels, energy storage and intelligent operation. This transition is both very similar and very different to past transitions.

Three of the four inconvenient truths are how this transition is like the past
one – energy transitions are slow (and getting slower)
two – energy transitions are additive (old fuels don’t go away)
three – energy transitions are sequential and high variance (especially on small scales)

The fourth truth is one in which the clean energy transition is departing from previous transitions
four – energy transitions enable new utility

The First Inconvenient Truth – energy transitions are slow (and getting slower)

In Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects Smil notes subsequent transitions are taking longer each time. Coal took 35 years, oil 40 years and natural gas 55 years to move from 5% to 25% of global primary energy consumption.

There are two reasons for the slowing down. As the absolute size of our energy consumption increases, the relative effect of adding more is smaller. The massive growth in global energy consumption means that effort today has a smaller relative effect than it would have in the past.

Second, the technical challenges of using the new energy source increase. Moving from wood to coal was a reasonably easy transition – both are solid fuels that can be transported, handled and burnt using similar techniques. Using oil required building a massive global upstream and downstream infrastructure, cars and roads to drive on. Using gas required the development of gas turbines – one of the most complex machines humanity has ever created.

The clean energy transition is full of technical challenges. Clean energy generation is low power density (W/m2) – meaning we need to build wind & solar across vast areas of land. It also requires transmission lines, energy storage and intelligent operation, to counteract the disadvantages of geographically dispersed, low capacity factor and intermittent renewables.

What this means for the clean energy transition – it’s going to take a long time.

The Second Inconvenient Truth – energy transitions are additive

Of the four truths, this is the most inconvenient. As civilization progresses we increase both the amount and quality of energy we use. But each time we transition we don’t replace old energy sources – we add new energy sources on top. Older technologies take a long time to go away. We are still building coal-fired generators today and are recklessly likely to for a long time.

Figure 1 below shows the history of US primary fuel consumption. Note how US coal consumption has continued to rise all the way through to the start of the 21st century. Each energy transition has not displaced coal. Instead newer fuels add to existing coal consumption. Coal consumption has also continued to increase.

Figure 1 – U.S. Primary Energy Use over time in Quads from 1800 to the present by source (US Department of Energy Quadrennial Technology Review 2015)

As global energy demand increases, renewables be a significant part of the marginal increase. But it’s the older fossil fuel generation that needs to go – history shows us that this doesn’t happen quickly. One reason for this is that the economics of technology improves as it matures.

Improvements in core technology, building of supply chains and know-how mean that older technologies are often efficient, cheap to build and cheap to maintain.  A technology having a track record of performance and lifecycle cost also makes it more attractive for investors.

Diesel generators (an 1890’s technology) are a great example of this. Diesel generators are reasonably efficient, quick and cheap to build with a well-understood maintenance schedule.

What this means for the clean energy transition – fossil fuels aren’t going away.

The Third Inconvenient Truth – energy transitions are sequential and high variance (especially on small scales)

Smil notes that energy transitions “require a specific sequence of scientific advances, technical innovations and organizational actions” combined with “economic, political and strategic circumstances”.

The dependence doing the right things in the right order means progress is not guaranteed. Coal dominated China, nuclear powered France and hydro blessed New Zealand show that energy systems evolve very differently.

When we have specific requirements about where our energy system needs to go, getting what we want requires getting things right all across the board.

The inevitability of technological progress in the economics of wind & solar is sometimes confused with the inevitability deploying wind & solar. The reality is that even as clean technology improves, there is no guarantee that our energy system will decarbonize.

There are a multitude of other, equally important things that need to happen. For example, without the correct alignment of incentives through rate structures even very cheap batteries won’t have an impact. We cannot only rely on technology improving. Without everything else in the right place at the right time we won’t get where we need to be.

What this means for the clean energy transition – there is no guarantee things will move in the correct way.

The Fourth Inconvenient Truth – energy transitions enable new utility

The first three truths are ways in which the clean transition will be like the past. The final truth is a reality of the clean energy transition that moves against past trends.

Why do we spend the time and money to transition to new energy sources? New sources of energy allow us to do things we couldn’t do before.

Coal enabled a revolution in manufacturing, oil & gas enabled revolutions in transportation. Energy transitions enable new utility by using higher quality fuels. One measurement of energy quality is energy density – how much energy we can squeeze into a given mass or volume.

Past transitions have been movements towards more energy dense fuels. Dry wood contains around 18 MJ/kg, anthracite coal 8-30 MJ/kg, oil 41-42 MJ/kg and methane (the primary component of natural gas) at 55 MJ/kg.

It is interesting that historical transitions have taken us from solids to liquids to gases. Volumetric energy density (MJ/m3) can be as important as energy density on a mass basis (MJ/kg). It’s difficult to compare renewables with fossil fuels on an energy density basis as renewables don’t consume fuel. Yet it is evident that water, sunlight and wind are less dense forms of energy than burning oil or gas.

Even if we ignore that clean technologies reverse the energy density trend, the electricity generated by clean technologies is still the same as what a gas turbine generates today. The clean energy transition lacks a killer app.

We aren’t getting any major new form of utility – only a cleaner version of what we already have. The cleaner nature of wind & solar are still worth working and paying for. But we are without a key driving force that helped to power previous transitions – the driving force of people wanting to heat their homes, power factories and fly around the globe.

The only thing that comes to mind is the role that inverter based renewables & storage can play using grid services such as fast frequency response.  It’s becoming clear that inverters are actually superior to synchronous generators in providing these services.  However this is a minor advantage compared to the coal fired revolution of manfuacturing and the oil fired revolution in mobility.

What this means for the clean energy transition – a key driving force that powered previous transitions won’t be helping this time.

I’m not arguing against the need for the clean energy transition. The need is urgent. The purpose of this post is to shine light on reality.

Only by acknowledging reality can we overcome the inconvenient and unwanted realities of energy transitions.

Thanks for reading.

References and further reading