Can we replace fossil fuels by 2030?

Gary Wolfram

The Solutions Project, an environmental group promoting renewable energy, recently released a paper outlining how Canada and the United States are capable of reaching a point where 80 percent of all energy will come from renewable energy by 2030.

Tony Seba, an entrepreneur and lecturer at Stanford University, believes that within 15 years all energy will be from renewable sources. We will have no more need for oil or coal and nuclear power will be retired. This also means the elimination of vehicles that are not electric.

While interesting paths to these goals can be drawn, the probability of achieving them are very small for a number of reasons.

Today in the U.S. 33 percent of electricity generation is from coal, 33 percent from natural gas and 20 percent nuclear. While rising steadily, only 13 percent is from renewable energy. The decline in the price of renewable energy is indeed worth noting. Solar power has seen a dramatic drop in price. The levelized cost of solar power fell by 78 percent from 2009 to 2014 and is currently lower than coal with carbon capture and peak load natural gas. It is also true that in recent months all of the increase in capacity has been in renewables.

However, the price of oil and natural gas has also fallen steeply with the use of horizontal drilling and other new technologies which make it difficult for other fuel sources to compete economically, much less totally capture the market. The U.S. is now the largest producer of oil. The new oil minister of Saudi Arabia has stated his country will continue to pump record or near-record amounts of oil this year. The International Energy Agency predicts a 1.2 million barrels per day increase this year in the demand for oil. Its estimate for 2040 is that coal alone will produce 1.66 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity, natural gas 1.198 trillion while renewables will produce 805 billion.

None of this points to a transition to only renewable energy within 15 years.

Both wind and solar power have the problem that the power that is generated is intermittent. One only has to drive by windmill farms on a calm day to notice this and not much solar power is generated at night. Should battery technology improve dramatically then it might be possible to store the energy in batteries for use when wind and solar is not generating. While there have been advances in batteries, it is extremely unlikely that within 15 years we can store enough energy to allow wind and solar to replace the current 3.347 trillion kilowatt hours of power generated through coal, nuclear and natural gas.

Currently there are 491 coal-fired power plants, 1,749 natural gas plants, and 62 nuclear sites with about 100 plants in the U.S. Incorporating wind and solar power into the grid in an amount necessary to replace these plants within 15 years is surely not possible, particularly given that large scale wind and solar generation is not located near the demand.

There are at least two reasons there will be a demand for gasoline in 15 years. First, there are more than 200 million gasoline-powered light vehicles on the road in the U.S. In the past two years 31 million new vehicles have been sold in the U.S. To think all the owners of all these cars will replace them in a 15-year period is not reasonable. There are 168,000 gasoline stations and 13,000 charging stations in the U.S. How likely is it that all of the gasoline stations will close and 150,000 new charging stations will open in 15 years?

There has certainly been improvements in renewable energy sources over the last decade. However, the idea that there will be no need for coal or oil in 15 years is simply not believable.

Gary Wolfram is William Simon Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Hillsdale College.