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When Will Renewable Energy Finally Defeat Fossil Fuels

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Scientists from St. Petersburg Mining University, in co-authorship with their French colleagues, made a forecast regarding the prospects of global energy development. What changes will occur in the fuel and energy complex by the middle of the century? Will hydrocarbons remain in demand, or will they be finally and irrevocably replaced by solar panels and wind generators? And, most importantly, will there always be light in our windows? Or will blackouts become commonplace and begin to be perceived as an unpleasant but everyday part of life?

The European way

A high level of energy security is an unconditional priority for any national government because it is not only a stable supply of electricity to households and businesses but also the foundation of the economic development of the state as a whole. Another thing is that there is no consensus on how it can be maintained in the future. For example, Western politicians are convinced that renewable energy sources can perfectly cope with this task, and therefore invest huge amounts of money in their construction, while reducing funding for projects related to traditional energy sources.

So far, everything is in favor of this strategy. Last year, for the first time, renewables generated more electricity in the EU than fossil fuels - 38 percent versus 37 percent. This event was presented as an indisputable success and unconditional proof that green technologies can take over the function of hydrocarbons. That is, to guarantee the sustainable economic development of civilization, and at the same time to reduce to zero the carbon footprint left by energy companies today.

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Europe has indeed achieved very good results in the initial stage of the energy transition. This is an obvious fact, and it makes absolutely no sense to argue with it. Another thing is that in 2020, solar panels and wind turbines in Europe generated only 19% of the declared 38% of electricity. The other half was generated by hydroelectric power plants, whose efficiency has never been doubted. Moreover, the record share of RESs was registered against the background of the overall 4% drop in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This situation makes it possible to keep some of the natural gas in storage to use it later when the need arises. There is no way to pull a similar trick with electric power - there are simply no competitive, affordable technologies capable of storing it. It is this fact that underlies doubts about the success of the next stage of the energy transition. After all, the most important function of the “safety cushion,” the role of which today is played by hydrocarbons, allowing for a rapid increase in the volume of generation during peak loads, will be lost. And this, as you can easily guess, will lead to an increase in the number of blackouts.

The Chinese way

The authorities of the Celestial Empire, whose gross domestic product accounts for almost half of Asia’s GDP, are well aware of the consequences for the country’s energy system that excessive reliance on renewable sources can have. Therefore, they are in no hurry to intensify their implementation. How is this possible, you may ask? After all, Beijing constantly declares its commitment to the postulates of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and spends on renewable energy quite comparable to the investments of the Old World.

On the one hand, this is absolutely true. The share of thermal power plants (TPPs) running on coal, gas, or fuel oil in China is gradually decreasing. Last year, it fell to 67.9%, which is 1% less than in 2019. At the same time, the total installed capacity of wind and solar power plants, on the other hand, has increased significantly, from 20.5% to 24.3% (from 413 to 535 GW). However, if we look at the statistics on actual power generation, the figures are not so optimistic.

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The fact is that, unlike the EU, the Chinese economy survived the pandemic with far fewer losses. Not only did the demand for electric power there not drop but, on the contrary, it increased by 4%. This factor, as well as the low efficiency of renewables compared to traditional energy sources, allowed to increase their generation by only 1%, to 9.5%.

Quantitative indicators look even less impressive. Total electricity consumption in China increased by 297 TWh, to 7623 TWh. Renewable sources managed to meet only one-third of this increase. And thermal power plants covered almost half of it, from which we can draw an unambiguous conclusion: Beijing, despite its desire to decarbonize, is betting primarily on fossil fuels.

Research paper The Role of Hydrocarbons in the Global Energy Agenda: The Focus on Liquefied Natural Gas.

Opinion of scientists

A group of researchers from St. Petersburg Mining University, joined by their colleague from Montpellier, have come up with three versions of global energy development - negative, moderate, and positive. Each of the forecasts analyzed the risks that could disrupt the sustainability of the fuel and energy complex. And assumptions were made about the demand for certain energy sources over the next 30 years.

The first two scenarios are based on the assumption that mankind will not be able to fully overcome the consequences of the pandemic and will live under certain restrictions related to freedom of movement. The third scenario assumes a favorable development. What would be the role of hydrocarbons in each of these cases?

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“No matter how the situation develops, the demand for electricity will definitely be quite high,” says Yuri Zhukovsky, director of the Educational and Scientific Center of Digital Technologies at Mining University. “This means that states will have to invest heavily in energy infrastructure (in particular, in channels for energy delivery to consumers), as well as in the training of personnel for its maintenance. In the case of the negative scenario, which implies periodic recurrence of severe lockdowns and, as a consequence, stagnation of national economies, the rate of the energy transition will significantly decrease, because it requires too much investment in the creation of high-tech products. On the contrary, the importance of fossil fuels, including coal, will increase, because the cost of electricity generated by burning them is relatively low. In this case, states with a rich resource base will turn into a kind of ‘zones of power’ that have a serious geopolitical influence. A moderate scenario, where some restrictions remain in place but do not seriously impede economic progress, would lead to an increase in the total consumption of natural gas and energy produced by renewable sources. Well, the positive scenario assumes the collation of various resources, none of which will be able to displace the other in any significant way. The exceptions will be coal and fuel oil - the ‘dirtiest’ resources in terms of their negative impact on nature. Their consumption by 2050 will be significantly reduced.

The foundation of this scientific research was a survey of more than two hundred top managers of fuel and energy companies, as well as the heads of specialized universities, and further computer modeling of each of the three scenarios based on the data obtained. In other words, we can say that this forecast is the consolidated opinion of professionals who see the trends in the industry and can assess their impact on the prospects of the fuel and energy complex.

Why it matters

The vast majority of us have a very vague idea of how intricate the fuel and energy complex is. And they take the constant presence of electricity in the socket for granted. The need to combat so-called global warming by replacing hydrocarbons with solar panels and wind turbines is often seen as a parallel topic that has nothing to do with energy security.

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So when asked, “Do you think it’s necessary to stop climate change,” we all say yes. This is logical, because Earth is our only home, and it is hard to find a more important task than to preserve it.

But the question should actually be phrased slightly differently. “Are you willing to sacrifice the stability of our homes’ electricity and heat supply (because heating systems, according to the EU, should be electrified) for the sake of fighting climate change, the very fact of which is far from obvious, and the consequences (assuming that global warming is real) are not of any serious destructive nature?” There is no doubt that the energy security of our civilization depends precisely on the right answer to this question.