ESAAPG Webinar Series – Scott Tinker
October 20 @ 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm
Unraveling the Energy Narrative
Depending on your country’s stage of economic development, your personal political leanings, and many other factors, opinions about the energy future vary widely. The evolving energy dialog represented by western Europe and the United States suggests there is “clean, renewable” energy and “dirty, non-renewable” energy, and further that clean energy is now “cheaper” than dirty energy. In this narrative, “carbon neutral” is growing in popularity and the “solution” for companies, states and countries is to balance out their own emissions by buying an equivalent amount of carbon offsets somewhere “else.” Some propose to eliminate coal, oil and natural gas altogether, and deploy solar, wind and batteries to power the world and address climate change. In this narrative, clean refers to CO2 emissions, renewable speaks to the sun and the wind, and cheap describes the cost of production. But are solar, wind and batteries really clean and cheaper, and can they actually address climate change? If one: includes the whole environment and ponders whether the extensive mining of earth materials to construct turbines, panels and batteries is actually “renewable and clean”; examines the higher cost of electricity to the end-use customer because of redundant back up generation needed in wind and solar heavy regions; and considers the massive scale of energy demand and short time frame required to address climate change; then it is likely one would arrive at a different narrative.
That different narrative exists in much of the rest of the world, where billions of people seek affordable and reliable energy to lift themselves into economic prosperity. Here, the energy narrative is signaled by actions, which at times stand in stark contrast to their political rhetoric. Based on affordability and reliability, emerging and developing economies have mostly chosen to power with, in order, coal, hydro, natural gas and nuclear, supplemented by solar and wind. Notwithstanding hollow pledges to the UN regarding carbon neutrality, China, the largest economy in the world, consumes far more coal than all other countries in the world combined, and will for many decades to come. India, Vietnam and others are following this lead. Further, although the environmental concerns of the developing world include the climate, they are more acutely focused on economic development, and environmentally on pollution of water and soil and local air quality, all of which impact the health and safety of billions of their citizens right now.
Given these two distinct narratives, coal and oil will remain important sources of global energy, plateauing in demand over the next several decades. Natural gas, hydro and nuclear will increase and will be supplemented by growing geothermal, solar and wind. Reducing the broad environmental impacts of wood, coal and oil on atmospheric and local air emissions is important. Carbon capture and storage will be needed if players want to reduce actual emissions, rather than engage in the pretense of buying offsets, which are far too limited to address climate change. Finally, acknowledging, and then mitigating, the considerable impacts of mining and landfill disposal that will be caused by solar, wind and batteries at scale is vital to global sustainability.