The term “renewable energy” in most cases does not refer to energy in its totality, but just “electricity.” Wind and solar farms can only produce electricity, and even that is intermittent, needing the wind to blow or the sun to shine, or both, continually from Oslo in the North to Christchurch in the Southern Hemisphere. Electricity is limited in its ability to energize (no pun intended) societies around the world.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates coal use will peak sometime around 2023 and stabilize or modestly decline thereafter. And although the use of renewables will continue to grow, with even nuclear power growing modestly, petroleum and natural gas will dominate energy use through 2040 and beyond (see figure).
The constant drive for fuel efficiency and conservation has slowed the increase in the use of energy, as reflected in slight uptick of the EIA curves for fossil fuels even as billions of people from China and India are beginning to enjoy lifestyles like those in developed countries.
Necessity of Fossil Fuels
Electricity can turn on the lights in your cruise ship cabin, but the cruise liner industry uses around 80,000 gallons of fuel per day, per ship, to accommodate 25 million passengers annually, a number that increases every year.
Electricity powers traffic lights, but road and air travel dominate most peoples’ lives in industrialized countries and emerging markets. Airlines conduct more than 100,000 flights a day around the world. Commercial aviation, with 23,000 commercial airplanes worldwide, consumes more than 225 million gallons of aviation fuels to transport almost 10 million passengers and cargo every day. Aircraft, like automobiles, have improved their efficiency tremendously, but we are and will fly more to accommodate thriving economies around the world.
Sharing the Progress
Even as we continue to pursue greater efficiencies and conservation in our daily lives, to use fewer resources and produce less waste for the goods and services we produce, we should recognize “alternative” or renewable energy sources are a long way from being able to maintain the standard of living people in so-called developed countries have attained, much less uplift the billions of people in undeveloped countries out of poverty and allow them to enhance their lives. They will need coal, the most abundant and cost-effective energy source available today, as well as oil and natural gas, if they are to modernize and leave poverty and premature death behind.