Renewable energy usage grows at a measured pace

Many people ask why the energy business is still extolling the virtues of natural gas, which is a fossil fuel.

One reason is that there will be no rapid takeover by the new renewables. Professor Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment and public policy.

He has published 37 books and nearly 500 papers on these topics, is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

In 2010, he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the top 100 global thinkers. Smil notes in his book, “Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century,” that in 1990, the world derived 88 percent of its primary commercial energy (not including wood and crop residues that are burned) from fossil fuels.

In 2012, the rate was still almost 87 percent. Renewables supplied 8.6 percent, but most of that has been hydroelectricity. New renewables such as energy produced by wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels provided just 1.9 percent.

The renewable share of the global commercial primary energy supply will continue to increase, but a more consequential energy transition over the coming decades will be from coal and crude oil to natural gas.

Pros and cons
Natural gas is primarily methane, which is principally derived from organic compounds like cattle, sheep and goats. Unfortunately, when methane is in the atmosphere, it is a potent greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Methane has advantages, however; it’s transportable at high volumes, low cost and over great distances. It also has high combustion efficiency and is well suited to be burned in gas turbines, which are the most efficient fuel conversions on the market.

Most everyone understands the convenience of use of natural gas for furnaces and stoves. Gas is also an excellent source of energy for densely populated cities, where most of the world’s population will be housed. Moreover, the reliability and durability of gas supply are very good since our supply is rarely interrupted and natural gas is abundant and economically recoverable.

An uncertain future
Since climate change and the effect of global warming have become matters of great public scrutiny, the contribution of natural gas to greenhouse gases has become a key criterion when assessing desirability of any fuel. However, natural gas generates less carbon dioxide when combusted than the burning of coal, liquid fuels or wood, charcoal and crop residues.

Many geopolitical factors, combined with the growth or acceleration of renewables, make anything but short-term forecasting difficult. Will nuclear energy resurface? Will we finally develop a large-scale electricity storage? Will hydrogen (fuel cells) make a serious impact on transportation? It’s very difficult to tell.

In what most likely will be an evolutionary shift, not a revolutionary one, natural gas is an excellent fossil fuel with many advantages.

Matthew P. Figgie is chairman and Rick Solon is president and CEO at Clark-Reliance.