Nowadays you have be a modern Spartan to enjoy January; the clanging steel of fitness clubs, lettuce seemingly at every meal, and frugal, no-frills living are the tell-tale signs that the holiday binge is toast.
Like our New Year's resolutions, achieving a greener energy future will take time and discipline. Photo credit: iStockphoto
In addition to ambitious individual resolutions, many of us also head into a new year with ideas and plans about how we can collectively make the world a better place. Reducing or even eliminating fossil fuels is often seen as a way to improve life on Earth, especially with the threat of climate change continuing to hover over us.
Whether we’re seeking a trimmer waistline or carbon-free energy, we, as conditioned by human nature, want immediate results with the least amount of pain and discomfort possible. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that getting the results we want typically takes lots of time and effort.
The irresistible lure of food, a comfy couch and endless hours of reality television is the lethal triumvirate that thwarts our efforts to drop pounds.
So what are the barriers to shedding fossil fuels?
Cost and energy density are a couple of significant factors. While renewable energy has obvious environmental benefits, the reality is that most forms of it don’t yet match fossil fuels when it comes to cost and the amount of energy they generate.
The institutional financial advisory firm AltaCorp Capital Inc. took a crack at comparing renewable and hydrocarbon energy sources in a comprehensive research paper called Renewables vs. Hydrocarbons: The Energy Reality (PDF).
Though AltaCorp acknowledged that hydrocarbons can’t be used indefinitely, its analysis of 27 energy sources found that alternatives such as wind and solar were several times costlier than conventional options like oil sands and crude from the Middle East. And while there’s no gain without pain, there’s also no pain quite like dollars and cents. Check out the slides below to see how energy sources stack up with respect to cost and energy output, consumption and CO2 footprint.
This cost gap is why the world’s governments, not private enterprise, are being tapped to stimulate the renewable energy investment needed to ease the transition away from hydrocarbons. Subsidies are, and will continue to be, an essential part of renewable power development, which is one major reason why we can’t expect to shed our fossil-fuelled chubbiness overnight.
In its World Outlook 2011, the International Energy Agency predicts that renewables in global primary energy consumption will increase from 13 percent of the mix today to 18 percent in 2035, with the growth underpinned by subsidies worth $250 billion in 2035, up from $66 billion in 2010.
Not only are current forms of renewable energy costly but operating them on a scale needed to match rising energy demand is impractical, as we explored in a previous OSQAR.
Even renewable energy’s most ardent supporters realize ditching fossil fuels can’t be done overnight. Consider Greenpeace’s Energy Revolution: A Sustainable Energy Outlook for Canada, a recently released report on renewable energy sources and their potential for replacing nonrenewable ones.
The report suggests that renewable sources of energy would rise from 15 per cent of Canada’s primary energy demand today to 25 per cent by 2020 and 74 per cent by 2050.
Increasing renewable energy’s share in the mix is something we all want sooner rather than later. We believe transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources can happen if there’s open dialogue, full participation by all stakeholders, and recognition that trade-offs will be required.
What’s needed is a national strategy that takes into account the social, economic and environmental implications of such a shift.
And like our New Year’s resolutions, sculpting the greener energy future we want without radically compromising current lifestyles will no doubt take a lot of discipline and innovation.