I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.
Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.
The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.
I hadn’t included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world’s best dam sites have been taken.
The category “Biofuels and waste,” which makes up 9.7 percent of the world total, includes small slivers of what we Americans call biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), I said, but mostly represents the deforestation of the planet through the use of wood for daily fuel in many poor countries, hardly a sustainable practice that warrants vast expansion. (This percentage has been roughly the same since 1973 though the absolute consumption has more than doubled as population has climbed sharply.) The burden for renewable energy expansion, I concluded, would therefore remain on the six categories I mentioned at the outset of my presentation.
As if to underline this worrisome state of affairs, the MIT Technology Review just days later published a piece with a rather longish title: “At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system.”
In my presentation I had explained to my listeners that renewable energy is not currently displacing fossil fuel capacity, but rather supplementing it. In fact, I related, the U.S. government’s own Department of Energy with no sense of alarm whatsoever projects that world fossil fuel consumption will actually rise through 2050. This would represent a climate catastrophe, I told my audience, and cannot be allowed to happen.