This article is part of a series on the Demography — Energy — Climate Report. The DEC report is a freely accessible report I wrote on climate change and energy. I investigated the world’s potential to tackle climate change and looked at how we can optimize this transition.
- ➡️➡️ The DEC Report (pdf)
- 🌊 Hydropower potential (1/8)
- ☀️ Solar potential (2/8)
- 🌬️ Wind potential (3/8)
- 🏭 Nuclear potential (4/8)
- 🛢 How much fossil fuel do we consume each year? (5/8)
- 🔥 Energy, EROI and limits to growth (6/8)
- ☢️ How many people died because of the Chernobyl disaster? (7/8)
- ⚡ Why do we close nuclear reactors? (8/8)
1. Wind turbines and solar panels
Wind turbines and solar panels are the two fastest-growing sources of low-GHG (greenhouse gases) electricity in the world. They remain far from the two main sources of low-GHG electricity which are dams and nuclear reactors. Wind turbines and solar panels produced 1.8 PWh and 1.0 PWh of electricity in 2021. Nuclear reactors and dams produced 2.7 PWh and 4.2 PWh of electricity in 2021. (source)
The growth of all these low-GHG sources of electricity occured simultaneously to the growing consumption of GHG-intensive sources of energy which are coal, natural gas and oil.
2. Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels include coal, natural gas, and oil. Burning these fuels emits CO2 and CH4 which are greenhouse gases. These gases contribute to climate change.
The amount of energy coming from fossil fuels is dramatically higher than the amount of useful energy coming from low-GHG electricity sources.
140 PWh of fossil fuels have been consumed in 2019.
Fossil fuels are the basis of the current production system and economy. They are used in logistics, metallurgy, heating, agriculture etc.
The end of the consumption of fossil fuels is a necessity to ensure that the world’s temperature change stays below the +2°C limit stated in the Paris agreement. The end of the consumption of fossil fuels is also inevitable, as fossil fuels are themselves limited. While this limit may not occur during this century for all fossil fuels (particularly coal), other limits may constrain our ability to raise our consumption of fossil fuels. For example, in a world where the temperature change is significantly above +2°C, our ability to maintain agricultural production and world’s population could be limited. This limit could affect the ability of fossil fuels producers and consumers to handle more fossil fuels, and this limit could also affect the need for fossil fuels if the world’s population falls.
Because almost all production systems are based on energy, and because our main sources of energy are fossil fuels, the relationship between the end of fossil fuels and our ability to raise the production of low-GHG sources of energy must be investigated. I’ll particularly focus on wind turbines and solar panels.
Because they’re the fastest growing low-GHG sources of electricity, and because of their characteristics (in particural their 20~30 years lifespan), I hypothesise that they could be the hardest hit by the decline in fossil fuels.
The question I’m asking in this article is:
- Can wind turbines and solar panels survive the end of fossil fuels?
3. “Surviving” the transition
I’m going to briefly detail this question.
- “survive” means “can they maintain themselves at the current level of production, and continue to produce more each year”.
- “the end of fossil fuels” means either an end we decide (we willingly reduce our consumption of fossil fuels for climate reasons), or an end we undergo (we would like to have more but we can’t).
A quick answer to this question could be “obviously yes, they can survive”. Because wind turbines and solar panels both produce energy, we could use them to produce more energy, and keep replacing fossil fuels. In this world, solar panels and wind turbines would be sustainable and could maintain current living conditions. At some point we would have enough PWh of wind/solar electricity to replace ~100% of fossil fuels.
This situation would be ideal for climate change.
However, it seems optimistic to me. This article details why.
A) More constraints to produce more wind and solar
Currently, installing +1 GW of solar panels requires producing +1 GW of solar panels. In 30 years, if current solars panels reach their end of life, installing +1 GW of solar panels will require the production of +2 GW of solar panels, as we’ll have -1 GW of old solar panels.
These +2 GW of solar panels will need to be done in a world with less fossil fuels, while currently the +1 GW of solar panels have been produced in a world which consumes more and more fossil fuels.
The same idea applies to wind turbines, which have a lifespan of ~20 years.
The ideal date for carbon neutrality is 2050 in order to stay below the +2°C limit stated in the Paris agreement, which is in 27 years.
B) Demand for fossil fuels and inflation
The demand for all fossil fuels combined has grown steadily over the last few decades.
Regardless of what the global demand of fossil fuels will be, the production of wind turbines and solar panels is currently based on fossil fuels for physical reasons (metallurgy, logistics etc.). But, it is also based on funds which allow to finance this transition. These funds are a way to pay the people who work on this transition.
If global demand for fossil fuels is not met, prices could rise. If prices rise, central banks could raise interest rates, slowing economic activity and pushing prices down. What are the implications for solar panels and wind turbines? The shortage of fossil fuels could make it more difficult to finance the transition because of too high interest rates. It would be more difficult to borrow money to invest in solar or wind energy. This situation won’t happen if solar panels and wind turbines are a suitable replacement for fossil fuels as, in this situation, they could meet demand that is not met by fossil fuels.
Paradoxically, while this situation would be caused by an inability of solar or wind to replace fossil fuels, this situation could also falsely make wind and solar more profitable, because prices for energy would rise, making investments in these sources of energy more lucrative. These gains in profitability would not be associated with a long-term improved in low-GHG energy production. Energy production would be reduced while non-fossil energy production would be pricier.
C) How much people and energy do we want to use to produce more energy?
A final question we need to ask ourselves is the “cost” of energy. Money is used to pay people. A free energy is an energy that requires no people. Energy from the sun is free when you use it to grow your fruits. Energy from the sun isn’t free when it comes from a solar panel.
A cheap energy requires very few people to produce a lot of energy.
We currently use approximately 160 PWh of non-free energy in the world. And we’re all fine with using a tiny amount of these 160 PWh to keep producing more and more energy each year. Accepting to use a larger amount of the total energy we produce, while producing less energy globally, could lead to constraints on our living standards. How far we will accept this globally is a political debate.
4. A sustainable world
A sustainable civilisation would be able to maintain its energy system over multiple centuries with reduced adverse consequences on its population.
This condition is not met by fossil fuels, partly because of climate change.
Indices I got from making the DEC model and the DEC report made me wonder on whether the current strategy regarding solar panels and wind turbines is sustainable. While I failed to give this report a scientific or media presence, I still hope that the reflection most of the world has for clean energy and climate change will consider the aspects I detailed in this article.