Fossil Fuel, Renewable Energy and Climate Change

Hello French Fries!

    So, I own a cat and a dog. They are both similar in size, coloration and their single track mindedness solely focused on food. We trained the dog and the cat to get along, and might have done too well in this regard. My fiancee leaves some cat treats in a sealed container on top of the fridge. I came home today to find that the cat had knocked the cat treat box onto the floor, the dog had opened the box, and they feasted together. The joys of being a pet owner!

 

Anyway, my rant of the day: Since the industrial revolution, the world has relied on energy to power our industries, build our economies, help us move around and keep us entertained. The earliest factories relied on finite sources such as coal and oil, as well as renewable sources such as water and wind. As industry has expanded, population has grown, and our transportation network has blossomed, the demand for energy and it’s source fuel has grown exponentially. Automobiles require oil (refined into gasoline),  trains required coal, factories required energy, electrical grids required something to power them, and so on. The industrial revolution has changed the face of the human society and enabled the Western economy to develop into what it is today. However, the industrial revolution’s reliance on fuel has not been necessarily positive.

The fuel that has traditionally powered our economy since the earliest throws of the 19th century has been carbon based fossil fuels. As the name suggests, fossil fuels are the remains of dead animals and plants that overtime became buried under the surface of the earth. In the heat and pressure that exists beneath the earth’s crust, these organic tissues were transformed into oil, coal or natural gas (the three types of fossil fuels). This process takes millions of years, and hence these materials are nonrenewable. The process of extracting fossil fuels, and the act of burning them to provide energy are rather dirty affairs. Extracting and burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gasses that trap heat when released into the atmosphere. Collectively, these gasses are called Greenhouse Gasses (because they trap heat like a greenhouse). Hence, over the past two centuries of industrialization, the byproduct of powering our economy has been increased levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

    The increase in greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has held in heat that otherwise would naturally dissipate.  This has caused the global temperature to rise. This global warming has induced a climate change, which has negatively impacted the ecosystem, weather patterns, and the our wellbeing. The politics surrounded by global warming and climate change can be quite testy, in no small part because the oil and fossil fuel sector of the economy has been one of the largest engines of economic growth, and has contributed heavily to the wealth of the Western world. However, there is a rising economy surrounding cleaner renewable energy that provides a path forward to sustainability.

As the terminology would suggest, renewable resources are usable resources that are not limited to finite quantities. The most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, and (arguably) hydro power. Because these sources use naturally occurring processes that don’t require environmental change to tap, and because they do not emit any gasses into the atmosphere, they are deemed to be clean.  There are disadvantages though. It takes a lot more wind or sunshine to power the same quantities of electricity that a normal fossil fuel powered generator could produce. Also, wind does not blow all the time, and the sun is only available during the daytime, and when it’s not subject to cloud cover. Hence, these sources are not quite as perceptibly reliable as fossil fuels. If you need more energy and are using fossil fuels, all you need to do is to add more coal to the fire. The reliability issue could be negated by batteries, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, battery power is not quite at the level of development as the rest of our technology. The other main disadvantage of renewable energy is the initial start up cost. The technology behind wind and solar power machinery is quite advanced, and the production and installation of these resources is a large investment. However, once installed, the cost of the energy they provide is next to nothing since it is an unlimited supply. Contrast this with fossil fuels. It is inexpensive to dig some coal or oil out of the dirt and light it on fire. However, since the supply is finite, and increasingly limited, the law of supply and demand makes the cost of the resulting energy provided to be much higher. So the question energy investors must ask is would they trade off the high initial investment for low cost and clean energy, or are they content with the higher energy prices from dirtier sources that don’t cost as much to start out?

As a global warming and climate change has been coming into mainstream political consciousness over the past couple decades, there has been large investments in increasing renewable energy technology and diversifying our energy portfolio. However, global warming is not the only reason why energy diversification is attractive. In the United States, the initial push for energy diversification and research of renewable energy was started by President Jimmy Carter’s administration as a result of the 1973-74 Oil Embargo and 1979 Energy Crisis initiated by OPEC. OPEC (a bloc of mainly Middle Eastern and other oil producing nations) wanted to punish the United States and it’s NATO allies for their support of Israel and the then recently overthrown shah of Iran. Since they in effect controlled a monopoly on oil production, they used oil prices as a weapon knowing how much the United States and it’s allies relied on oil for their energy needs at the time. President Carter’s logic was sound: if you diversify your energy sources, you can rely on other sources when one becomes unavailable. Renewable energy, being available anywhere and everywhere in an infinite quantity, can secure America’s and any other country’s energy needs.

    In the interest of both energy security and climate change, the international community has recently made the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and investment in renewable energies a global cause celebre. The Paris Climate Accord, an international treaty, has laid out targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction and funding for renewable energy policies. Every single nation on earth is presently a signatory to this agreement (even Santa Claus’s North Pole). However, the administration of President Donald Trump, in an unpopular move, has started the process of withdrawing the United States from the treaty. While unfortunate, it is not hard to see why. President Trump is a Republican, and one of the Republican Party’s main constituencies is the oil industry. Trump’s administration is full of fossil fuel industry insiders, such as his secretary of state, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson.  The former oil people in the Republican party owe their financial wellbeing and livelihoods to fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel companies have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders (including many people inside the beltway) to make as much money as possible. Consequently, it only makes sense that Trump’s administration would be hostile to the Paris Accord. It is not in the best interest of the fossil fuel industry, and since they are one of Trump’s main political backers, he’s not going to be supportive of an accord that would harm them and cost him their votes.

Regardless of the Paris Accord, the fossil fuel industry is still under threat from a rising and increasingly competitive solar and wind industry. The price of solar and wind energy costs less than fossil fuel energy, market share percentage of renewable energy has been growing at the expense of fossil fuels, fossil fuels are losing the public relations battle, and fossil fuel reserves are starting to dry up since they are not renewable. While not a good outlook for the fossil fuel industry, and their political patrons, this set of circumstances is probably for the best for the climate and the vast majority of humanity. If anyone from the fossil fuel industry is reading my blog, understand that I do not mean ill will towards the fossil fuel industry; the fossil fuel industry has been vital to human economic development over the past two centuries, and nobody can deny that.  However, the reserves of fossil fuels are drying up, and the expenditure of fossil fuels is negatively impacting our environment at an alarming rate. If the fossil fuel industry had any interest of surviving the challenges to come that it will soon be facing, they would be best served by investing and joining in the renewable energy industry. They have the technical knowhow and the resources to be able to impact renewable energy production tremendously and make it their own. Instead of fighting to curb the renewable energy market, the fossil fuels industry should use this critical juncture to be part of the solution.

 

     Now for my tech tip of the day: Since I’ve spent so much time talking about fossil fuels in this article, I’m going to cheat here and give a “tech tip” about automobiling. I (very) recently learned that when you look at the fuel gauge on your dashboard, the arrow on the side of the gas pump symbol is pointing to the side of your car that your fuel tank’s intake is on. So, if you just got a new car, or are driving a rental or a loaner, you now know how to tell which side of the the car you should pull up on at the gas station.

 

I apologize if this article has come off as a bit political. That is not my intention, when I start writing these blogposts, I start on a train of thought and just go with it. I happen to be a realist and I make observations with the mentality of ‘I calls it as I see it’. If you disagree with my assessment on the climate, or my belief in the need to transition towards renewable energy sources. Please feel free to (respectfully) debate me in the comments section. Otherwise…

… the ketchup is in the sauce.

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