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The clunky, lagging transition to renewable energy

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Susan Montoya Bryan/AP

(Read caption) This April 2011 file photo shows some of the 30,000 solar panels that make up the Public Service Company of New Mexico's new 2-megawatt photovoltaic array in Albuquerque, N.M. It would take more than 70 years to replace the world's current electrical generating capacity with renewables, Cobb writes.

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No doubt you've heard people speak of an energy transition from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewable energy--energy which by its very nature cannot run out. Here's the short answer to why we need do it fast: climate change and fossil fuel depletion. And, here's the short answer to why we're way behind: History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don't have that long.

Perhaps the most important thing that people don't realize about building a renewable energy infrastructure is that most of the energy for building it will have to come from fossil fuels. Currently, 84 percent of all the energy consumed worldwide is produced using fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are therefore providing the lion's share of power to the factories that make solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal equipment, hydroelectric generators, wave energy converters, and underwater tidal energy turbines. Right now we are producing at or close to the maximum amount of energy we've ever produced from fossil fuels. But the emerging plateau in world oil production, concerns about the sustainability of coal production, and questionable claims about natural gas supplies are warnings that fossil fuels may not remain plentiful long enough to underwrite an uneven and loitering transition to a renewable energy society. 


This is what's been dubbed the rate-of-conversion problem. In a nutshell, is our rate of conversion away from fossil fuels fast enough so as to avoid an unexpected drop in total energy available to society? Will we be far enough along in that conversion when fossil fuel supplies begin to decline so that we won't be forced into an energy austerity that could undermine the stability of our society?

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