Renewables Face Economic Challenges While Global Oil, Coal Usage Still Dominate

The following article is based on our August 18, 2023 interview with energy expert Robert Rapier (see Robert Rapier on Green Energy Myths and Realities for audio).

The Transition from BP's Statistical Review to the Energy Institute's Overview

For over seven decades, BP's Statistical Review of World Energy has been a valuable source of energy market insights. However, in a surprising move, BP has ended this long-standing tradition. Instead, the responsibility of publishing this comprehensive energy report has been passed onto the Energy Institute. The format remains consistent, and many readers likely won't notice a significant difference.

BP's decision for this shift aligns with the company's increased focus on transitioning to renewable energy and is part of the large-scale, strategic move by many organizations to turn away from conventional energy sources.

Traditional Energy Sources Still Dominant

Contrary to the widespread belief that we have reached peak demand for energy, the most recent statistical review underscores a contrasting picture. In 2022, a new record of global energy demand was set. Despite a slower pace compared to 2021, largely due to the rebound following the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall global energy usage was unprecedentedly high. Fossil fuels recorded an 82% share of primary energy consumption, which shows a slight reduction from the 87% recorded in 2010.

Despite a relatively slow decline, renewable energy sources like wind and solar are experiencing remarkable growth rates. Currently, they account for around 7.5% of global energy consumption. However, it's important to note that this positive growth trend starts from a low base. The massive predominance of fossil fuels still hovers at 82%, setting new demands. This dominance underlines a significant gap the renewable sector still needs to bridge to significantly overthrow traditional energy sources.

Coal Usage and Rising Emissions in China and India

Record-breaking trends emerged in 2022 when global coal demand rose to its highest level since 2014, driven by rising demand in China and India. This spike in coal demand resulted in record carbon dioxide emissions. When discussing carbon emission reduction strategies, it's crucial to understand its primary sources. Historical data show that the US has contributed more carbon emissions than any other country. However, this narrative is swiftly changing, with China closing in at a rapid pace.

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Asia Pacific, which accounts for roughly three times the combined carbon emissions of the EU and the US, is growing at a notable speed. Meanwhile, the US and the EU have flatlined their emissions, approximately maintaining the same consumption rate as 40 years ago. The massive surge in emissions from the Asia Pacific region presents a daunting challenge to global emission reduction efforts.

This issue becomes even more complicated considering China's quadrupling of emissions in the past 40 years and the fact that their emission per capita is half of the US, but their population is four times the size. This imbalance serves as a stark hindrance to global efforts to control carbon emissions.

Energy Production and Dependencies

The US remains the world's leading producer of oil and natural gas, with China leading in coal production. However, the US's dependency on certain nations for raw materials like cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper, and even silver ─ critical components for the shift to green energy ─ has raised eyebrows. Reliance on foreign resources risks an exchange of dependence from domestic oil deposits to foreign nations.

Unfortunately, the closure of mines and production sites for these essential minerals in several US regions further elevates the risk of dependency on nations such as China and Russia. This potentially positions these countries to monopolize the market and control prices, posing significant obstacles to relying more on renewable sources of energy.

Infrastructure Challenges and Green Transition

Shifting to green energy isn't just about acquiring essential raw materials, however. It also involves significant changes and upgrades to the existing infrastructure, such as the power grid. As states replace nuclear, gas, and coal power plants with intermittent wind and solar alternatives, the grid's reliability is compromised. Increasing instances of power outages illustrate this problem.

Critical grid upgrades are necessary to handle the imminent surge in electricity demand. A switch from gasoline to electric vehicles, mandated by several US states, will drastically alter electricity demand and consumption patterns. Therefore, inhabiting a future where electric vehicles dominate the roads will require significant investment in infrastructure development and estimation, as the current grid might not handle the massive demand.

Economic Price Signals vs. Political Policy

In contrast to the popular belief that we're moving towards peak oil, the demand for oil grew robustly by 3.1% in 2022, outpacing the average growth rate. This is largely attributed to the ongoing recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the incumbent US administration's unfriendly disposition towards the oil and gas industry, projections suggest that 2023 could see the US produce more oil than any other time in history.

Price signals, which are deemed far more influential than a president's policy, play a pivotal role in shaping oil markets. Converting from gasoline vehicles to electric will not eliminate oil from the equation quickly. As Norway's example illustrates, even with an 80% rise in electric vehicle sales, Norway’s oil consumption has only seen a 15% reduction from its peak. So, maintaining access to ample oil supplies remains crucial as we transition to greener energy alternatives.

Closing Thoughts

In summary, the energy sector is navigating a critical juncture, facing rising demand for oil and raw materials essential for the green transition. As the world gears up for this large-scale shift, addressing the dominant energy demand, strategizing infrastructure upgrades, and addressing the emerging dependencies on foreign nations for critical minerals are challenging considerations that demand practical and carefully planned solutions.

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