The Rising Renewables
Non-renewable energy sources are the main contributors to carbon emissions. Coal and oil are responsible for the biggest share of those emissions, followed by natural gas. The only clean energy resources are renewable ones, but the world generally still shies away from them (see diagram below). One exception is Sweden, which today has a carbon-free electricity supply. Sweden is also targeting the elimination of fossil fuels in cars by 2030.
The oil and gas industries are worth over three trillion US dollars today. About 33 billion barrels of oil are consumed globally every year, so yearly per capita consumption is about 197 gallons. Electricity production is the main consumer of energy. In 2006, the world consumed 15 terawatts of electricity generated by oil, gas, coal, as well as nuclear, hydro-electric,* and renewable energy sources (geothermal, wind, and solar). World demand for electricity is expected to increase to 40 - 50 terawatts in 2050.
Although total global investments in clean energy reached $260 billion in 2011, renewables are only advancing very slowly as a replacement for fossil fuels, mainly because of their high costs and lagging technology. Oil and gas are still the world's main source of energy, and whenever oil is replaced, it usually is replaced by natural gas and nuclear energy. The use of renewables as a percentage of total world energy consumption only increased by 0.07% from 1973 till 2009. In contrast, the use of nuclear energy increased by 5% during the same period. Nuclear power is preferred to renewables because of its perceived long-term financial feasibility and the abundance of Uranium in the earth's crust in comparison to the amount of energy it produces. A small amount of Uranium (1kg) can yield 80 terra joules of energy, i.e. the same amount of energy produced from burning 3,000 tons of coal.
However, although nuclear energy does not produce any carbon emissions during production, it is not a sustainable solution for energy production. Not only does it depend on a non-renewable resource, but it also is definitely not a green solution because of its numerous hazards and risks connected to harmful radiation and the unmanageable waste it produces. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in present-day Ukraine resulted in the evacuation of over 350,000 people. More importantly, the number of long-term cancer-related deaths caused by the disaster, although heavily debated, runs in the tens of thousands. Concerns about safety issues relating to nuclear energy have escalated again after the recent Fukushima earthquake in Japan and the resulting failure of the nuclear reactor there.
The dramatic increase in oil prices that has taken place over the past few years and the radiation risks connected to nuclear energy have made the world take another serious look at renewables. Japan is one example of a country that is suffering as a result of its dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In May 2012, following the Fukushima earthquake, Japan shut down its fifty nuclear plants for a thirteen-month maintenance period. As a result, it is now importing, at considerable cost, increased amounts of oil and coal to make up for the closure of its nuclear plants on which it has greatly depended for its energy needs since 1970.
Germany, in contrast, has shut down eight out of its seventeen nuclear reactors, and plans to shut down the remaining nine by 2022. The country is determined to replace nuclear energy by renewable energy, and it has realized impressive advancements in developing solar energy installations with the support of a strong subsidy system that has allowed the country to exceed its targets for renewable energy production. Furthermore, a $2.6 billion energy deal has been signed between Norway and Germany to exchange hydropower from Norway with wind and solar power from Germany. A high-voltage 1,400 megawatt undersea cable is expected to be ready for this project by 2018. Such a project will establish a new system for global energy exchange that can lead to a transformation away from fossil fuels. It is about time.
Nourhan Al Kurdi
February 19, 2013
* Although hydro-electric power is a renewable energy source, it is not a clean one because it depends on the construction of dams, which can have adverse effects on existing eco systems.
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A diagram comparing the world's sources and amounts of energy consumption in 1973 and 2009. Although the relative dependence on oil has decreased, renewable energy sources (solar, wind, and geothermal) still provide less than 1% of the world's energy needs.
"TPES" is an acronym for "Total Primary Energy Supply," and "Mtoe" is an acronym for "Million tons of equivalent oil."
Source: International Energy Agency (IEA).