As far as world energy supplies go, there is good news and bad. The bad news is that oil will come to an end. What is the good news? That oil will come to an end. And oil is not alone: sooner or later, all forms of fossil fuel will meet a similar fate, including the uranium used to fuel nuclear power plants.
Available in liquid form and easy to use, oil became the most common source of energy, the “black gold” of the 20th century. It has always been evident that one day supplies would dry up, but since no one knew exactly when, the problem was ignored. The alarmed concern shown by heads of state today demonstrates a last-minute approach to the problem despite our growing dependence on this declining resource.
In fact, knowing how much longer reserves will last is third on our list of worries; the “civilized” world will have caused fatal environmental damage long before available resources are exhausted (1).
The second most important issue then is the effects of increasing energy prices on national economies and the global economy as a whole. The era of easily-extractable oil is definitively over, which explains why attention is now being focused on the potential of non-conventional fossil fuels.
Secondly, China’s economic growth as well as an increase in global travel means that energy demands are outpacing the ability of new technology to provide additional supplies. The required infrastructure becomes increasingly expensive as our fossil fuel-based world energy system depends more and more heavily on the extraction of the last remaining resources.
Political instability is another important factor. In a world where political, economic, cultural and social instability is becoming an issue – due, in part to the spread of dogmatic liberalism – energy problems will likely worsen. Supplying the world with oil, natural gas and uranium from a limited number of sources via large-scale transportation networks is a logistical challenge and a threat to political and military security (one example is the need to protect production sites from terrorist attacks).
Developing countries, forced to buy at world market prices, are hit particularly hard. In many cases, energy imports already absorb all export revenue. In 2005, the cost of oil for these countries rose to 100 billion dollars, an amount which easily exceeded all the development aid provided by industrialized countries. Meanwhile, profits have skyrocketed for companies in the industry: in 2005, Exxon Mobil made 35 billion dollars, Shell 25 billion, and BP 22 billion (2).
Long before the disappearance of current resources then, the world’s primary energy supply system is already in danger.
Significant economic advantages
The direct and indirect use of solar, wind, water, biomass and wave-based energy could provide the planet – daily – with fifteen times more energy than we actually use. A wind turbine can be installed in one week, whereas building a traditional thermal energy plant takes between five and fifteen years. Solutions already exist which can fill the gaps in the solar and wind energy sectors (3).
The only direct costs of renewable energy production come from developing technologies. Equipment costs will decrease as large-scale production increases and techniques progressively improve. All the while, conventional energy costs will continue to go up.
‘Renewables’ also offer significant political and economic advantages. Replacing fossil fuel imports with an endless supply of locally produced energy reinforces energy security and has a positive effect on a country’s balance of payments.
In the spring of 2000, the German government passed a bill on renewable energy which invalidated any claims that green energy is an utopist or unrealistic dream. Thanks to incentives, an additional 3 000 megawatts of renewable energy-based electrical capacity have been generated annually since 2000, totaling over 18 000 megawatts. This legal framework notably allows any renewable energy-based electricity producer access to the national grid at a price guaranteed over 20 years, thus ensuring a good return on investment. Extra costs are shared by consumers at a rate of 5 euros per person per year.
This new industry has already created 170 000 jobs (4). No other public investment program has cost so little and yielded such good results in so little time. In the last six years, investment costs have dropped by 40% due to economies of scale. This new energy trend has eliminated an additional 7 million tons of CO2 emissions annually.
If development continues at the same pace, electricity production from nuclear and fossil fuel sources will be completely replaced in about 40 years. Any additional costs will be eliminated by rising conventional energy prices.
Similar replacement schemes are possible for heating and automotive fuels. Individual homes are already equipped to supply their own energy needs through renewable energy, and soon, skyscrapers will do the same. Overinvestment will be absorbed in ten to twenty years by reduced spending on fuel. The engineering of hybrid cars should also allow a switch from fossil fuels to biofuels and electrical engines, powered by new battery technology.
The idea that our outdated energy system of integrated companies cannot evolve betrays a total lack of knowledge about energy technology.
Choosing a primary energy source determines what political, economic and technological efforts will be required to extract, transform, transport and distribute it (as well as how that energy will be used). This means that a handful of nuclear power plants and refineries will have to be replaced with a greater number of medium and small size production units, international infrastructure with regional infrastructure, and high-pollution energy sources with clean energy that does not produce greenhouse gases. Lastly, and quite importantly, it will be necessary to move away from concentrated corporate ownership towards more diversified structures. Systemic change in energy production requires a paradigm shift from a technological, economic and political perspective. Here, in fact, is the heart of the matter.
(2) During that year, profits of the world’s five biggest oil companies – Exxon Mobil, Chevron Corporation, Total, BP and Shell – totalled 106.8 billion dollars. (Le Figaro Economie, Paris, 9 septembre 2005.)
(3) This could involve pumped-storage hydroelectricity, compressed-air energy storage systems, or hybrid systems which use both these techniques in combination with programmed top-ups in hydroelectricity or biomass-based energy.
(4) German Environment Ministry (BMU) ; …
Plaidoyer pour les énergies renouvelables
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