Energy & Environment

Energy sustainability requires both fossil fuels and renewables

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Haven’t we all grown weary of the debate between those that wish to deny climate change implications and to hold on to the use of fossil fuels as we always have — and those that see renewables as the only way forward and wish to disable the fossil industry? Each side is arguing long and loud with a profound absence of technical and economic analysis. Why? Because it is easy to talk in sound bites and not be burdened with facts. Let’s be demanding of the facts and be honest about implications and impact. Let’s stop the immature name-calling and stop being so strident about causes.

{mosads}Energy sustainability is a combination of three distinct and yet interwoven fundamentals. People must have access to energy that is secure and reliable. The energy must be affordable for consumers and cost-competitive for industry and nations to compete. And energy must be environmentally responsible in the way it is produced and how it impacts our world. There is not room for compromise on any of these principles. One cannot choose one or two of the fundamentals at the expense of another. It is not sustainable unless all three of these fundamentals are in harmony and balance.

Fossil fuels dominate the global production of energy today as they are the most abundant, reliable, secure and affordable fuels on the planet. Over the past 100 years, we have made great strides in the efforts to make fossil fuels more environmentally responsible through nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, mercury and suspended particulate removal through transformative advanced technologies. These are facts, not defenses. Nonetheless, the environmental challenge remains. It’s not just carbon dioxide, but also the water and land footprint of fossil fuels that impact our lives.

Renewables can and will impact the amount of carbon dioxide we produce and are a primary pathway to a cleaner environment. There are many in the world that believe renewables are the sole solution to our energy sustainability challenges. These are facts as well. This view requires that we simply view energy through the environmental lens.

But what do people really want? Access to energy solely from available wind, sun or water is not what society deems sufficient. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year is what people have come to expect and demand. The cost for renewables (not simply the production cost, but overall system delivery cost of delivered energy) is much higher than fossil fuels. Renewables are a fantastic source of energy — when the renewable resource is available — but must be supported and integrated with a baseload of energy supply. And that is where fossil fuels come in, as well as the mature thinking of integration of fossil and renewable production and distribution. (One can only observe the impacts occurring in Germany today, which has forced renewable portfolio standards without a thoughtful integration strategy. Consumer costs are up as much as 50 percent — and the use of coal is up 20 percent! Using coal to back up and support renewables is required, but has not been deployed strategically in Germany as the rush for renewables did not considered access and affordability in the analysis.)

You see, both fossil fuels and renewables require our ongoing investment in transformative technology. Fossil fuels require the support of industry and government to address carbon dioxide emissions. (The recently introduced Carbon Capture Improvement Act to further the capture of carbon dioxide emissions and provide a commercial pathway to long-term carbon dioxide emission reduction through enhanced oil recovery and long-term storage of carbon dioxide is a perfect example of such investment). Not because we want to continue to use fossil fuels and harm the environment, but because we require fossil fuels and wish to mitigate environmental impact.

Similarly, a renewables portfolio without baseload fossil generation simply does not meet the sustainability test. Environmental responsibility is surely improved (although not perfect, as we now look at the aesthetics of renewables and people’s preferences). Access to renewables is limited by nature. Affordability is impacted by the need for redundant back-ups and the capital investment that is simply on stand-by for when it is needed. It is an inefficient use of capital and it simply makes energy less affordable. People in energy poverty don’t need expensive energy options; they need energy to be reliable and affordable. All people on earth are not blessed with energy abundance and have the means to focus on just environmental concerns — so we have a responsibility to enable them.

Recently, the International Energy Agency produced a report that assessed pathways to achieve carbon dioxide climate targets globally on a gross domestic product basis and concluded that using only renewables with no fossil fuels was as much as 138 percent more expensive. That’s trillions more! Investing in carbon capture utilization and storage addresses the carbon dioxide emissions and provides for energy security.

Technology is the only winning formula.

We must invest in those technologies, for both fossil and renewables. We must improve access through improved energy storage and resource utilization, improve affordability in generation and distribution technologies, and be environmental responsible with capture and disposition of carbon dioxide emissions. We mustn’t argue causes, but focus on real energy sustainability, and the critical technology investments necessary.

McConnell is executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and a former assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy from 2011 to 2013.

Tags Fossil fuel Renewable energy
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