In 2007, world consumption in energy was equivalent to 90 billions of barrels of oil or expressed in electrical output, about 55,000 terawatt hours (1 terawatt is 1000 gigawatts, 1 gigawatt is 1000 megawatts, 1 megawatt is 1000 kilowatts). This is the equivalent of the yearly output of 30,000 normal-sized power plants (600 MW).
80% of world energy is created by fossil fuels: 32% by oil, 21% by gas, and 26% by coal. Hydroelectric and nuclear energy contribute a bit more than 5% each and the burning of biomass (mainly firewood) about 9% (0.46% of which biofuels), leaving 1.9% (2008 figure) from renewable energies such as solar, wind, marine and geothermal sources.
Roughly one-third of the 90 billion barrels of oil equivalent in primary energy consumption is in electricity, of which two thirds is generated by burning fossil fuels. Coal accounts for 42% of world electricity production. Nuclear energy and hydro energy account for roughly 15% each. Biomass accounts for 1.1% and renewable energy sources for 1.3% of world electricity production.
Many point to a lack of commitment, coordination and political will as the reason for this paltry progress. In energy, as much as elsewhere, decisions are habitually driven by vested interests, frequently based on incomplete or “tailored” information and all too often not in the best interest of the propagated goals.
However, the reasons why so-called renewable energy sources will hardly make a serious dent into carbon emissions for at least another 30 years are not political; there are large technological and economic hurdles.
Any assumptions of us slowing down our total consumption can safely be discarded. The energy needs of an awakening emerging world are a force much stronger than any potential reduction of emissions attempted by all energy saving programs combined. China alone is building 50 to 60 Gigawatts electricity generating power a year, 70% of it with coal. This is the entire production of a large country such as the United Kingdom.
At the same time, all renewable resources have important drawbacks. Hydro and geothermal are not expandable to significant degree.
Solar is technologically not ready and has enormous negative capital and energy balances, i.e. solar still consumes enormous resources to create. The expansion of polysilicon, its main supply has large lead-times, technological hurdles and high capital intensity.
Wind is commercially viable onshore, but the costs and landmass involved to make this a serious alternative are enormous. Additionally, wind – like solar and other renewables – cannot be used as a base-load provider. They suffer from intermittency, and therefore cannot guarantee a stable supply.
If, and admittedly that is quite a big if, the predictions and assumptions of Al Gore turn out to be true, the only real way to deal with carbon emissions is to focus on cleaning up fossil fuel energy, primarily Coal. There are solutions, they are not cheap, but they are ready, tested and in operation.
In addition, coalbed methane may be developed into a sizeable gas provider. The use of gas substituting for coal or oil reduces emissions significantly.
With respect to renewable energy, it looks as if wind-power could become significant fairly quickly (within 20 years) and deliver up to 5% of global primary energy as an auxiliary source. It is, however, important to note that the cost of creating this capacity would in current dollars and technology amount to approximately $500 billion.
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