For several years now I have paid attention to the supply and demand factors for the production of energy. It seems to me that the standard of living we enjoy in Australia and developing countries aspire to, is based on an abundance of cheap and reliable energy. I have mentioned in at least one earlier essay the wonderful museum in Ceduna, in South Australia, which offers visitors a working example of every machine, and there are dozens of them, used before the arrival of electricity. A lot of old guys maintain these machines, and they are properly proud of them too. I remember one or two of the machines from my childhood. Electricity made most of them obsolete quite quickly. You pressed a switch and an electric motor did all the work. Electric motors were simple and easy to repair, too, as well as cheap to replace.
More recently we have been subjected to a great cry from those fixated on ‘alternative energy’ sources. To save the planet we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels and replace them with ‘sustainable’ energy sources, largely wind and solar. There are problems with this project, for wind and solar suffer from intermittency and need back-up, which has to be provided by fossil fuels. Both wind and solar need lots of land to be at all useful, because their energy density is weak. Nonetheless, the cry continues, and it is most useful to see what in fact the components of energy supply actually are. The British Petroleum (BP) oil company has been publishing statistics on this subject since 1951, and it recently brought out its 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy, which you can read here. I have to accept that the BP data are as close to correct as they can be, and there is a great deal about their methodology in the Review. The data allow both snapshots of a given point in time, like 2019, and also a long-term trend.
Now you might think that an oil company would be forthright in pointing out the great utility of oil, if only for transport, let alone for the generation of electricity. But no. BP is careful to be politically correct. The CEO of BP is Bernard Looney (I make no comment), says that BP is aiming to be a net-zero emissions company by 2050. More:“The world’s carbon budget is finite and running out fast; we need a rapid transition to net zero”.
Alas, his charts and tables, as below,
don’t suggest that anything much in the way of a rapid transition is happening now, or likely to happen soon. Over the past twenty-five years world consumption of primary energy has almost doubled, but its components are proportionately much the same as they were in 1994. The consumption of coal, oil and gas has increased quite impressively; nuclear energy has not, and is much the same; there is somewhat more hydroelectricity, and renewables, which were tiny in 1994, are now producing somewhat less than nuclear power stations. Even if you extend the trend for a further twenty-five years it seems highly unlikely to me that there will be any such rapid transition.
That is just to assume that current trends remain constant. I have doubts that such constancy is possible. Batteries can store a little energy for a short time, while something else is switched on and kicks in, but they don’t generate power, despite what many people seem to think. There seems to be increasing resistance around the world to the plonking of wind turbines and solar arrays on otherwise useful land, both for aesthetic grounds and in the case of turbines medical grounds as well. Rooftop solar is becoming an inconvenient source of grid power. And the life of solar cells and wind turbines is becoming a worry. Those consumers who opted for solar arrays when there was a government inducement to buy them will find out soon whether or not the long-term investment actually does pay off. Developing countries able to do so are investing in coal as well as renewables. Just about any country that has the raw material is searching for and exploiting oil and gas. There is no way that a poor country can get rich quickly by opting for renewables. They want to have the same living standards as we do. Why wouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they?
I’ve used the BP data because they are historic, and can be arrived at reasonably accurately. Projections are the devil, for so much depends on techn0logical advances of many kinds, and on whether or not ‘peak oil’ is arriving, has arrived or will arrive in some short-term future. Since the demise of oil as a cheap energy source has been predicted, wrongly so far, since the 1950s, it is hard to know what to think. But most projections I have seen build on the 2019 figures that BP provided, and continue the trend in a sort of linear fashion. Here is an example.
Its projections, be it noted, started fifteen years ago! Its projection of renewable availability was more up-beat than the reality of 2019, but the big three, coal, oil and gas, were much where they were predicted to be in 2005. My guess is that its projections for 2035 will be pretty similar to the reality in that year, only fourteen or so years away. May I live to see it! If alive I’ll be waiting for the preparation of Queen’s celebratory telegram, if she still sends them.
If you want to see a graph of ‘peak oil’ here’s one.
I do not know on what data and estimates the decline is based. Note that the real peak was not to be 2017 but about now. That seems to be the case for most global estimates of peak oil. It is always coming. Even in 2050 the decline in global production looks to be somewhat short of twenty per cent. What we will all be doing then is moot.
To return to the present, the future and our own country, I can see little point in our trying to lead the world, or be among the big players, in ‘decarbonising’ Australia and showing the way to the otherwise benighted. Yes, I recognise that it is the fashionable thing to do, and that our governments talk about it in a muddled sort of way. But we have abundant coal, enough to supply our electricity for a couple of centuries at least. We can afford to buy our oil from overseas. We have plenty of gas, if we were sensible enough to reserve the best of it for ourselves.
Of course, to do that we would have to say, as confidently as we could, that there is no climate emergency, that the small increases in CO2 in the atmosphere over the past thirty years have coincided with a greening of the planet and a rise in food production, that natural variation is very much a part of climate change, and that the notion of ‘climate sensitivity’ doesn’t seem to be born out by observations and argument, and more similar caveats.
I don’t see this happening any time soon. But the more I study actual data the more I want to argue that the climate activists are having themselves, and the rest of us, on. The sooner we all wake up, the better.
Apology: My operating system has been changed, and I am still unsure of how to use the new version. The present bolding has no significance, and the graphs could be better, I agree. I’m still learning!