As fossil fuels peter out the future of energy generation will be renewables. The problem with renewable energy is that it has much lower net energy than fossil fuels. It takes energy to make energy. The reason fossil fuels have a higher net energy gain than renewables is because fossil fuels are very concentrated forms of energy and much easier to collect, transport, store and use than other forms of energy. If a wind farm, for example, was to produce the same amount of energy as an oil well, the wind farm would need much more resources (especially energy) than the oil well.
Building a wind turbine
Earth-moving equipment creates roads and building platforms on previously inaccessible land. Large trucks bring steel, concrete and other raw materials to the site and huge cranes are used to erect the structure. All of these machines burn diesel fuel. So do the freight trains and cargo ships that convey the materials needed for the production of cement, steel, and plastics. For a 5-megawatt turbine, the steel alone averages 150 metric tons for the reinforced concrete foundations, 250 metric tons for the rotor hubs and nacelles (which house the gearbox and generator), and 500 metric tons for the towers. Steel is generally made by melting iron ore using coal or natural gas as a heat source. Cement is also made using large amounts of coal or natural gas as a heat source. It would be much less practical to use wind energy to power these machines and processes.
Renewable energies such as sunlight and wind power are more diffuse so it makes sense to make their generation more diffuse i.e. small-scale and distributed. Burning wood doesn’t make sense for making steel from iron ore but it will heat individual houses just fine. You could say the same about solar panels. For household and many small businesses, using small-scale renewable energy for cooking, lighting, space heating and water heating makes sense. Distributed renewable energy is more efficient too because there are less transformation and transmission losses. There is also the added benefit that it aids self-sufficiency. There is no doubt that energy will be more expensive in the future as fossil fuels become scarcer. If people generally become more self-sufficient in energy they’ll be able to offset the higher costs.
The best use for fossil fuels
Our view is that fossil fuels are wasted for doing things like running cars, heating houses and cooking. Econation believes it would be prudent to use fossil fuels only for the production of renewable energy generation as well as large-scale manufacturing and high energy uses such as steel and cement making. This would have the effect of reducing fossil fuel use overall and increasing renewable energy use. It would also effectively increase the net energy of the renewables.
If we just wait until all the fossil fuels are used up before we start ramping up the generation of renewable energies we will have lost this opportunity to ‘fund’ renewables and reduce current emissions.