Will the 21st Century be the Fossil Fuel Century?

Will the 21st century be the fossil fuel century?

Whether it’s peak oilers, climate scientists, renewable and sustainable gurus, or cleantech venture capitalists, we all talk like that’s not an option.  We’ve preordained that the 21st century is a green energy, renewable power, cleantech century.

And I’d like to believe that.  But it’s not a done deal yet.  There are 3 points all of us need to keep in mind before declaring victory.

  1. China, the second largest and fastest growing large economy in the world consumes half the global coal consumption, powered in part by North American and Australian coal supplies, and by a huge increase in Chinese domestic coal production.  This year’s EIA reference case 2035 projection has China’s coal consumption doubling by 2035, driving most of a 50% increase in world coal consumption – and virtually no change in coal’s proportion of the energy equation.  Powered of course with current recoverable coal reserves at some 900 billion tons, or 120+ years of current production.
  2. Brazil, the poster child of biofuels potential the last 10 years, is making a play with its deep water subsalt discoveries to be one of the oil exporting superpowers.  And check out the announcement of its $224 Billion 5 year oil investment program.  That’s like a couple of thousand ethanol plants ,or one major oil company.  The Brazilian offshore finds to date represent production something like 5-10x the current Brazilian ethanol production.  Some poster child.
  3. And then there’s shale gas, its potential exemplified by the Marcellus Shale.  By some estimates this resource is big enough to change the entire game in fuels for power. And most of it’s located right down the street from the heart of the US population centers, just like the coal beds were.  Hard to see how electricity prices keep rising to help renewables in the face of that, with natural gas prices being  moderate and all, (unless of course China eats all the coal and drives coal prices up –  a global fossil fuels century either way?).

Imagine a 21st energy century where the US growth is powered by cheap natural gas, and exports our coal to China to even out the balance of payments.  Where increases in ethanol production and offshore oil production and slightly higher gasoline prices and mpgs balance out most of the transport fuel equation. A world where renewables play an important part, but still stay at margin of the King Fossil.

It’s not a world unimaginable.  And it’s not much different that the imagination might have done seen in 2000, or 1990, or 2050.  This shouldn’t be doom and gloom, nor should it be time to declare a cleantech victory.   The 21st energy century will be a long century.  And it’s just business as usual.

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