Nov 28, 2009

Nuclear plants did not replace coal and gas plants, they joined them.

From How (not) to resolve the energy crisis]

Piling up energy sources... what is happening is not a new phenomenon either. What we are doing for more than 100 years now, is piling up energy sources. Today (in the Netherlands, Spain, the US and worldwide) the absolute amount of coal consumed for electricity production is much larger than one century ago, when there was no talk of gas, oil and nuclear. The dirty coal of the beginning of the industrial revolution was not replaced by cleaner gas plants. The gas plants joined the coal plants.

US consumption by source 1845 2001 Next, nuclear plants did not replace the existing coal and gas plants, they joined them. Today, with renewable energy, the same thing is happening. They address an energy demand that did not exist before. We use renewable energy sources to power an ever growing plethora of energy-sucking gadgets - and this will not get us anywhere.

Up until now, newer and cleaner energy sources have always been used to enlarge energy production, not to make it "greener" (see for instance the image on the left, depicting US energy consumption from 1845 to 2001, source).

The so-called greening of our electricity production, which generates so much talk, is still 100 percent wishful thinking. We are not one step further than 5, 10, 20 or even 100 years ago. On the contrary, things get worse every day.

Relative versus absolute figures

Much more important than what we do, is what we don't do. The key to progress is scaling down non-renewable energy production, or at least keeping it at the same level. Instead of aiming for the development of more renewable energy, policymakers should do anything in their power to make sure that not one more kilowatt of non-renewable energy is added. 

United States

For instance, imagine that the US indeed realises the very ambitious goal of generating 25 percent of their electricity consumption by renewables, and let's assume it takes them 5 years longer as planned. According to the projections of the IEA, US electricity demand will grow by 26 percent (16 to 36 percent) from 2007 to 2030. This means that the 3,800,000 GWh of today will be 4,788,000 GWh by 2030. When everything goes to plan, about 1,244,880 GWh of that will then be renewable (that is 3 times the worldwide renewable electricity capacity today).

But, this is scarcely more than the 988,000 GWh of electricity demand that will be added during that period. So even if this ambitious goal would be realised, the US would still be as dependent on fossil fuels as it is today. Limiting electricity demand to current levels and not building any renewable electricity generating capacity would yield the same result. Limiting electricity demand to current levels and greening 25 percent of the existing electricity production would bring real progress.


Worldwide energy consumption der spiegel The rise of renewable energy is of secondary importance. What matters is that the absolute amount of burned up fossil fuels lowers. Only then would we become less dependent on non-renewable energy sources and on foreign energy suppliers, and only then would we lower CO2-emissions.

On a global scale, the futility of the present approach is even more obvious. The total amount of renewable electricity worldwide (excluding hydro*) rose from 31,000 GWh in 1980 to 414,000 GWh in 2006 - a rise of 1,300 percent or an absolute increase of 383,000 gigawatt-hours.

Yet, the amount of electricity generated by coal and gas doubled in that same period, which comes down to an absolute increase of 6,355,900 GWh. So, we added around 20 times more non-renewable sources than renewable sources. Total global electricity production rose from 8,027,000 Gwh to 18,008,000 Gwh, a rise of 250 percent. If we look at total energy production instead of just electricity production, the preponderance of fossil fuels is even larger (see the image above, courtesy of Der Spiegel).

Much more important than what we do, is what we don't do.

Right now we try to match our energy production to an ever increasing demand. But, we could also try to match our demand to a fixed supply. Considering the circumstances, this would be a much more realistic and intelligent strategy. An even better strategy is the "oil depletion protocol", an idea of author Richard Heinberg. He proposes an international agreement to lower oil production and consumption each year with 2.6 percent. We can wait until the geological, economical or geopolitical reality lowers the availability of fossil fuels, but if we anticipate that reality now then we definitely have more of a chance to make a successful transition to a durable, less energy-intensive society.

Not China's fault - Last, but not least, the IEA notes that the rise of energy use is largely on account of non-western countries, with China ahead. But, this does not clear us at all. As the IEA calculated in a former report, almost 30 percent of energy use in China comes from the production of export goods - from bicycles over jeans to solar panels.

 Western countries succeed in limiting the rise of their energy consumption because they have outsourced ever more energy use. Moreover, the IEA states in its last report, non-OECD countries are, in spite of their high share in current energy use, only responsible for 42 percent of the CO2-emissions since 1890 - with a much bigger population. This means that - in a fair world - we would have to reduce our energy use much more than them.

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