Global warming: The final century powered by fossil fuels

By Thomas Fuller

There is no doubt that the 21st Century will be the last century powered by fossil fuels. The vigorous debate going on right now is whether the transition will occur at a rapid or leisurely pace–but there’s no doubt that it will happen within the lifetimes of many of you who read these words.

It won’t really be worries about peak oil, peak coal or peak uranium that sets the pace for the conversion that is coming. There is no shortage of fossil fuels lying around–it just depends on the price we’re willing to pay. Nor is it, pace those most alarmed by it, going to be global warming that drives the move. Getting 295 countries to agree a strategy that will help some, harm others and give competitive advantage to a few is just too herculean a task.

It won’t even be naked political desire for energy independence–in a globalized world with fungible fuels, it really is about as important as a desire to be avocado independent. There are now too many sources of supply for bottlenecks to pop up, or to be erected by OPEC.

Concerns about all of the above have set a train in motion, and now it has achieved its own momentum and no longer requires a reason. We have given financial incentive for innovation to occur and, really, all we need to do now is not get in the way.

Here in this country, something as simple as the difference between wholesale electricity prices at night and day have spurred development of storage technologies as diverse as compressed air energy storage, pumped hydroelectric, flywheels and sodium sulphur batteries that will be used, not because we want to virtuously back up wind and solar energy generating sources, but because we greedily want to arbitrage the difference between day and night. This will, of course, also provide the backup we need to take advantage of wind and solar, but that’s almost an afterthought.

Uprating hydroelectric plants since 1978 has produced the equivalent of a new Hoover Dam in electricity generated, and Hoover Dam itself was one of those uprated. GE has announced a new wind turbine that doesn’t need a gearbox, which they will use in offshore windfarms, reducing maintenance costs considerably. It is just one of a steady stream of innovations that will be in the business pages over the next 20 years making wind cheaper and more reliable. The same is happening in solar.

Jet aircraft are now being built that are more than 50% composites, reducing weight, and efficiencies in engine use have helped them become 20% more fuel efficient. It will take a while to replace older airplanes, but in the meantime air traffic control systems can reduce stacking over airports and agreements in some countries are reducing the number of no-fly zones to allow airplanes to take the most economical routes. In the meantime, they are experimenting with which biofuel is most effective and poses the least threat to agriculture. The same is happening in maritime travel and in rail travel as well.

The list is endless and follows the same pattern we have witnessed with every technological breakthrough since the steam engine. We can try and hurry it along with R&D and government subsidies, but really, the 10% drop in U.S. CO2 emissions over the past two years should tell us all where we’re going–and give us a clue in how quickly we’ll get there.

Plug-in electric cars, hybrids, greener tires. Homestar, Energy Star, building certification programs. Ground source heat pumps, Aerogel insulation, Nanogel. Once the momentum is established, there’s really no stopping it. And we haven’t even started talking about the smart grid or used the ‘N’ word.

But we will soon, in a special series of articles tackling the tougher parts of this.