As the election nears, we are bound to see campaign rhetoric increase – unfortunately, at the expense of facts, which at times can be in short supply.
This will be especially evident when candidates talk about energy – more specifically, pitting renewable energy against traditional fossil fuels. It would be shortsighted to pick one over the other. With the emerging global energy landscape and a global economy in the doldrums, I believe we need all forms of energy, and we need it to be affordable energy.
We live in a world that demands more and more energy every day. Global population is expected to grow to nearly 9 billion people by 2035 – the equivalent of adding another China and United States combined. As more people move from rural to urban settings and incomes rise, we will see an increased demand for heating, cooling and transportation. These trends demonstrate why energy demand is expected to rise more than 40 percent over the next 25 years. To meet that demand, we will need as much affordable energy as we can get.
Over the next few decades, we are likely to see rapid growth in renewable energy – the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that renewables will be the fastest growing source among all fuels at 70 percent growth between 2010 and 2035. However, while U.S. solar generation is predicted to grow nearly 700 percent by 2035, for example, it will still provide less than 1 percent of total U.S. electricity generation. Fossil fuels will continue to supply the majority of our energy needs for the next 20 years – accounting for almost 75 percent of global energy demand in 2035.
So why will fossil fuels continue to play such a large part in the energy mix?
Because they are high-density fuels, easily transportable and stored, fungible across our current infrastructure, and the most affordable energy supplies available to us – an important factor given that the global economy is underpinned by ready access to affordable energy at scale. And over the last century, trillions of dollars of investments have been made to create a large-scale supply chain for these fuels and a reliable distribution infrastructure.
In addition, the oil and gas industry continues to spend billions of dollars each year developing and deploying new technologies to allow more resources to be recovered, ensuring these fuels remain competitive and readily available for consumers. No greater example of that can be found than here in North America, where bountiful and affordable supply of natural gas from shale rock has grown to represent over 25 percent of U.S. gas production in less than a decade through a combination of new technologies.
If we compare those characteristics with the characteristics of most renewable energy sources, it is easy to see why fossil fuels will continue to play a large role in meeting energy demand. Currently, renewable forms of energy are higher cost because of the need to concentrate, or store, the lower energy density of sunlight, wind or biomass. There is much less infrastructure in place to support them, and massive amounts of feedstock and space are required to produce measureable results. These factors are limiting their growth, and must be addressed before they are adopted on a wider basis
Consider wind and solar: Wind and solar power are intermittent and cyclical, requiring expensive storage or extensive backup generation. To meet just 20 percent of U.S. electricity demand, it would require nearly 165,000 new wind turbines, covering an area the size of West Virginia, or an area the size of Delaware covered in solar panels. Similarly, biofuels require huge amounts of biomass, yet produce little product. If you took the entire annual U.S. sugar and corn syrup production and used it for biofuels, it would only produce approximately 100,000 barrels per day – to put this in perspective, the United States alone consumes about 19 million barrels of oil per day.
As you find yourself watching the campaign ads and debates in the United States pitting renewables against fossil fuels, and green jobs against blue jobs, it is important to look past the rhetoric and look at the facts. To ensure we can meet demand and strengthen energy security, we must develop a national energy policy that allows for the exploration and production of our domestic natural resources. Concurrently, we must work to address the cost and scale issues associated with renewables by encouraging private investment and rejecting policies that pick one technology over another.
If we are going to meet the energy needs of the 9 billion people that will live on this planet in a few short years, we need it all, and we need it to be affordable.
John McDonald is vice president and chief technology officer for Chevron Corporation.
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