As the prices of electric vehicle (EV) batteries fall, many people are forecasting an inevitable transition in energy consumption for both consumer and industrial markets. This includes a strong likelihood that EVs will be as commonplace on our roads as will be combustion engine-powered vehicles. EVs are part of a global effort to develop a low CO2 energy economy that is safe, reliable, and affordable.
The international context of energy and climate policy is a central theme in this endeavor. On 12 December 2015, 195 countries signed an important climate change agreement under the umbrella of the United Nations (UN). This climate deal has specific targets. One is the reduction of global warming to well under two degrees. Another is achieving a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and capture and storage by the second half of this century. Because so much of the capital and infrastructure of today’s economic systems are based on fossil-fuel energy use, however, any transition from fossil fuel dependence will involve massive restructuring and new investments.
Evaluating different energy sources as the first step toward a sustainable future
Energy transitions from one major fuel source to another have always encountered opposition. The steam engine of the 1700s seemed unstoppable; that is, until commercial coal production supplanted steam as a central energy source. Then, in 1870, John D. Rockefeller formed Standard Oil and developed petroleum as a major energy source in the U.S.
In the 20th century and into the 21st century, fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—have been by far the dominant energy sources for industrialized societies. However, concerns about environmental impacts (called anthropogenic climate change), limits on supplies, and widely fluctuating prices have made many people question the wisdom and efficacy of fossil fuels as the core energy sources. If the important transition in energy sources to decentralized energy is to occur, we must consider multiple factors that affect energy stability, infrastructures, and socioeconomic classes.
A 2017 analysis by Harris and Road evaluates different energy sources as part of determining the larger picture of how our energy supply mix will need to change in the future.
- Price: The average price of a particular energy source and also its variability over time is crucially important to energy stability. Today’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels has been driven largely by price considerations.
- Availability: Fossil fuels are limited in supply. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar cannot be depleted but have variable geographic availability and may fluctuate daily and seasonally.
- Environmental impacts: Analysis of the environmental impacts of different energy sources should consider the full life-cycle impacts. For example, coal has impacts associated with it: air pollution generated from burning coal, the disposal of the waste from coal plants, and the eventual decommissioning of power plants.
- Net energy: It takes energy to get energy. For example, the energy required to explore for, to extract, and to process crude oil should be deducted from the energy obtained to determine the net available energy. Net energy is normally expressed as a ratio of the energy available for final consumption divided by the energy required to produce it.
- Suitability: Different types of energy are more useful for certain applications. Oil is particularly suitable for powering motor vehicles, nuclear power is primarily used to generate electricity, and geothermal energy is well suited for heating buildings.
If every country across the globe consumed fossil fuels at the rate of the average American, global greenhouse gas emissions would increase by about a factor of four, according to Harris and Road. While private markets certainly are destined to play a critical role in a shift away from fossil fuel dependence, major changes in government policies are necessary to foster the transition. Energy use must become a central economic and environmental issue for governments around the world.