Continuing the serialization of the Mark Mills report, “New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking.
Moonshot Policies and the Challenge of Scale
The universe is awash in energy. For humanity, the challenge has always been to deliver energy in a useful way that is both tolerable and available when it is needed, not when nature or luck offers it. Whether it be wind or water on the surface, sunlight from above, or hydrocarbons buried deep in the earth, converting an energy source into useful power always requires capital-intensive hardware.
Considering the world’s population and the size of modern economies, scale matters. In physics, when attempting to change any system, one has to deal with inertia and various forces of resistance; it’s far harder to turn or stop a Boeing than it is a bumblebee. In a social system, it’s far more difficult to change the direction of a country than it is a local community.
Today’s reality: hydrocarbons—oil, natural gas, and coal—supply 84% of global energy, a share that has decreased only modestly from 87% two decades ago (Figure 1). Over those two decades, total world energy use rose by 50%, an amount equal to adding two entire United States’ worth of demand.
The small percentage-point decline in the hydrocarbon share of world energy use required over $2 trillion in cumulative global spending on alternatives over that period. Popular visuals of fields festooned with windmills and rooftops laden with solar cells don’t change the fact that these two energy sources today provide less than 2% of the global energy supply and 3% of the U.S. energy supply.
The scale challenge for any energy resource transformation begins with a description. Today, the world’s economies require an annual production of 35 billion barrels of petroleum, plus the energy equivalent of another 30 billion barrels of oil from natural gas, plus the energy equivalent of yet another 28 billion barrels of oil from coal. In visual terms: if all that fuel were in the form of oil, the barrels would form a line from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, and that entire line would increase in height by one Washington Monument every week.
To completely replace hydrocarbons over the next 20 years, global renewable energy production would have to increase by at least 90-fold. For context: it took a half-century for global oil and gas production to expand by 10-fold. It is a fantasy to think, costs aside, that any new form of energy infrastructure could now expand nine times more than that in under half the time.
If the initial goal were more modest—say, to replace hydrocarbons only in the U.S. and only those used in electricity generation—the project would require an industrial effort greater than a World War II–level of mobilization. A transition to 100% non-hydrocarbon electricity by 2050 would require a U.S. grid construction program 14-fold bigger than the grid build-out rate that has taken place over the past half-century. Then, to finish the transformation, this Promethean effort would need to be more than doubled to tackle nonelectric sectors, where 70% of U.S. hydrocarbons are consumed. And all that would affect a mere 16% of world energy use, America’s share.
This daunting challenge elicits a common response: “If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can [fill in the blank with any aspirational goal].” But transforming the energy economy is not like putting a few people on the moon a few times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon—permanently.
I like that last paragraph. Next up is The Physics-Driven Cost Realities of Wind and Solar. Part 3.