Why Do We Still Use Fossil Fuels & Can Non-Renewable Sources of Energy Be Replaced?
The world has a crippling dependence on fossil fuels and this dependence on coal, oil and natural gas is one of the largest causes to arguably the biggest problem facing earth today: climate change. Climate change leads to problems such as sea level rise, desertification, and stronger or unpredictable weather events like the destructive wildfires in Australia or extreme floods that have destroyed many villages in Bangladesh.
A major contributor to anthropogenic climate change, which our planet is experiencing right now, is the large concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses that are being continuously released into the atmosphere from the transportation, commercial, residential, and industrial sectors.
As users, we are mainly interested in having a constant supply of energy which is also affordable so we can go on with our life. Where the energy comes from is rarely something we are aware of unless it carries financial implications. But the reality is that the majority of our energy needs are met by forms of non-renewable energy, in particular fossil fuels.
In fact, over 80 percent of the energy consumed in the United States was still derived from fossil fuels in 2015, and in 2018, 63.6 percent of the country’s electricity originated from fossil fuel combustion [1,2].
This begs the question. Why do we insist on using fossil fuels instead of switching to other (less-harmful) kinds of energy?
Why do we still burn fossil fuels to produce energy?
The answer is rather complicated and can vary, although there are a few common reasons for why we continue to use fossil fuels.
First and foremost, it is an issue of cost. Our economies have been built around the use of fossil fuels. To change, we would need to develop clear plans that provide predictability so that businesses can switch to renewable sources of energy, such as solar or wind energy.
Even when governments propose ambitious plans for renewable energy transition, their success requires buy-in from fossil fuel companies, which have accumulated over the decades a lot of wealth and have become important industry stakeholders. In other words, transition to clean energy is no easy task, especially when fossil fuels are cheaper compared to alternative sources of energy and in many cases are subsidized by governments.
Fossil fuel prices are low despite concerns regarding limited reserves. This is due to a number of reasons, including previously inaccurate assessment of already identified reserves, or the fact that today the technology for identifying a potential reserve and quantifying its potential have also evolved enormously .
Ease and familiarity with fossil fuel energy
Ease and familiarity of fossil fuels is probably the biggest reason for not switching to other kinds of fuels. Many people simply do not want to make the switch due to the ease of keeping the status quo. Like the saying goes: “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
For example, many people choose not to buy electric cars because they do not want the hassle of remembering to charge their car. It’s much easier to stop at the gas station in the morning on the way to the office because that is what people have been doing for decades.
Switching to new sources of energy requires a mentality change from consumers. Beyond “not in my backyard” arguments where consumers have objected to renewable sources of energy being built close to where they live – particularly wind turbines – consumers will also need to have a more active role if we are to adopt renewable energy on larger scale. This is because it is unlikely that a fully renewable energy future will rely on the same centralized distribution of energy like we have right now.
Lack of knowledge
The lack of knowledge is closely linked to the ease and familiarity mentioned above. This problem encompasses a lack of knowledge about possibilities that renewable energy brings and different alternatives, but it can be even a lack of knowledge about the dangers of continuous use of fossil fuels.
There are very few people who have visited a coal-fired power plant, have been to an oil rig, or seen the process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and have witnessed the pollution and environmental degradation first-hand. Additional problem is that some people simply do not or do not want to believe in climate change or protecting the environment, so they do not feel the need to change the current energy source as long as the power income is stable and satisfactory.
Fossil fuel energy resources — oil, coal and natural gas — have been fundamental to our economy and society for decades. Ever since the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century, coal has been used to power machinery and different transport modes while other forms of energy gradually joined the modern energy mix to achieve the best outcome.
Today, most energy is distributed to households and businesses through one central source. This can be the main power grid supplying electricity or natural gas pipeline network leading to each house. Throughout the developed world, power grid lines, natural gas pipelines, power plants and other necessary infrastructure has been in place for many years. During this time, the whole network has been set up in a way that is easy to maintain and efficient for consumers and suppliers, readily and steadily supplying energy for daily life functioning.
This is one of the reasons that hinders faster transition away from fossil fuels because currently used grids can run without changing technical components with maximum 10 percent of renewably produced power. With higher percentage of renewable energy, the grid has to be optimized to be able to switch between different renewable systems as needed. This might be a difficult and costly quest for the developed countries with complex energy infrastructure already in place .
Limited access to renewable energy
In some areas of the world, renewable energy can be quite inaccessible. For example, people living remotely or people living in an apartment building might have logistical problems in obtaining and installing solar photovoltaic panels.
Accessibility can refer to local availability but it can also include cost. Many people cannot make the switch due to the cost of renewable energy. Costs of renewable energy options vary dramatically from place to place, and using exclusively renewable energy can be cost-prohibitive in many cases due to factors such as lack of government support or low income.
The state of renewable energy today
Major advancements have been made in terms of efficiency and storage when it comes to renewable energy. It is true that renewable energy is becoming increasingly more competitive with fossil fuels. For example, solar electricity is now cheaper to produce in Dubai than electricity coming from gas turbines  and some countries are increasingly powering their energy needs with renewables.
At the same time, we have witnessed a number of technology breakthroughs, such as the Tesla Powerwall, a home battery that can power most homes during the evening using electricity generated by solar panels or the utility grid during the day.
But to be able to use renewable energy anytime, anywhere and most importantly as much as we need to, we need a transition period. And unavoidably, among the energy sources that will make up our energy mix during that transition period, we will have to include some non-renewable energy sources.
Why do we need to stop using fossil fuels?
According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the world generates more than 63 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels. This is a staggering figure given all the scientific evidence that indicates that the use of fossil fuels is bad for our health and for the environment to the extent that the environmental consequences are in turn affecting our wellbeing.
While coal, oil, and natural gas all display different properties, they also have different ways in which they can impact us. They are highly polluting, and their combustion emits tiny particles and harmful substances into our air which can cause a variety of respiratory and other diseases.
Air pollution is a global threat and it is scientifically proven that fossil fuel combustion causes lung damage and respiratory illnesses. Indeed, air quality is so bad that a report from the World Health Organization concluded that an average of 2 million people dies worldwide every year due to air pollution.
Beyond our health, it is also indisputable that the greenhouse gases emitted during burning of fossil fuels contribute to climate change. The U.S. Energy Information Administration states that about 76 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 could be attributed to burning of fossil fuels for energy .
But it is not only emissions that are a cause of concern when it comes to fossil fuels: their method of extraction and the waste generated can impact local communities and resources. Coal mining can destroy landscapes and habitats; nuclear waste is radioactive and therefore highly dangerous while oil spills can cause great environmental damage particularly to marine ecosystems.
We know that fossil fuels are a finite resource. With the knowledge that the primary raw materials used to generate non-renewable forms of energy are being depleted and faced with ever increasing demand for energy, the world needs to take a careful look at our energy mix and ensure it is fit for the future.
Can we replace fossil fuels with renewable energy?
The question is not “can fossil fuels be replaced” and “how can fossil fuels be replaced.” In other words, we do not have a choice: sooner or later we will have to phase out non-renewable energy sources and rely on other resources to power our economies.
The clear alternative that presents itself to us is the range of renewable energy technologies that we have already developed such as solar, wind or hydro. Biomass energy which relies on plants that are processed and burned to create electricity, can also be considered a renewable form of energy if the biomass feedstocks used are sustainably sourced.
Transitioning to a low carbon and sustainable economy will mean radical changes to the way our energy infrastructure is set up as well as our energy services system. It will also mean overcoming some technological barriers for rolling out renewable technologies systematically and across countries. For example, a common issue with some forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind is storage for later use. However, this is likely to be a concern of the past as companies such as Tesla are developing advanced battery technologies to store solar energy so that it can be used by households as and when needed.
The rise of renewables also means that new ways of trading this energy across nations will be needed. This will allow Northern European countries to sell wind energy to the South, and Southern European countries to sell solar energy to the North. Such an international power grid will provide greater reliability of supplies, helping to smooth out the intermittent power produced from renewables such as wind and solar energy.
For example, the UK is linked into this network through interconnectors to Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France; another possible project involves connecting the UK with Iceland’s supply of geothermal and hydroelectric power using a subsea cable.
Another aspect that is often neglected is the fact that the market is currently distorted against renewable energy sources. This could be easily addressed by removing the current subsidies provided particularly to fossil fuels while continuing to provide ways to support the financing of renewables which unlike fossil fuels requires more upfront investment.
But recent innovations and technological developments indicate the transition to renewable energy sources is very much possible!
This optimism is reflected in the way the market has responded: investment in renewable energy worldwide rose to $250 billion in 2010, reaching about 20 percent of new investment in the energy space . More recent data from the European Commission indicates that the share of renewables is increasing as 17.5 percent of gross final energy consumption was produced from renewable energy sources in 2017 .
Countries setting an example
Costa Rica is one such country: in 2016 around 98 percent of the country’s electricity came from green sources such as large hydropower facilities, geothermal plants, wind turbines, solar panels and biomass plants .
Denmark’s wind farms supplied 47 percent of the country’s energy demand in 2019. And that’s not where the ambitious goals of this country end. Denmark is actually making strides towards going 100 percent renewable by 2050 .
In 2015, China set the world record for most solar power capacity installed in one year, adding enough solar panels to cover one and a half football pitches every hour of the year, day and night.
With the cost of installing renewables becoming ever more competitive and attractive as it gives households the option to power themselves as well as the potential to sell energy back to the grid, it seems that transitioning away from fossil fuels is not some forward-looking exercise – we are actually living it!