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Power Earth Science

The World's Astonishing Dependence On Fossil Fuels Hasn't Changed In 40 Years (qz.com) 243

schwit1 shares a report from Quartz, adding: "Maybe 'dependence' is a poor description of poor people using the ready availability of cheap energy to help lift themselves out of poverty": There are few ways to understand why. First, most of the world's clean-energy sources are used to generate electricity. But electricity forms only 25% of the world's energy consumption. Second, as the rich world moved towards a cleaner energy mix, much of the poor world was just starting to gain access to modern forms of energy. Inevitably, they chose the cheapest option, which was and remains fossil fuels. So yes, we're using much more clean energy than we used to. But the world's energy demand has grown so steeply that we're also using a lot more fossil fuels than in the past.

The World's Astonishing Dependence On Fossil Fuels Hasn't Changed In 40 Years

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @04:08AM (#55678547)

    The headline is false, of course. There is still a dependence, but "unchanged in 40 years" is bullshit.

    • by amalcolm ( 1838434 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @04:24AM (#55678591)
      Unchanged maybe not. Deepened, I suspect. Setting aside the use of oil as a fuel, the production of plastics and so many other materials that are oil or gas based is almost universal. I look around the office I'm sitting in, almost every surface is covered in plastic or other synthetic material. If all types of fossil fuel disappeared tomorrow, I think this would have more of an impact that the loss of an energy source.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @04:59AM (#55678697)

        Unchanged maybe not. Deepened, I suspect. Setting aside the use of oil as a fuel, the production of plastics and so many other materials that are oil or gas based is almost universal. I look around the office I'm sitting in, almost every surface is covered in plastic or other synthetic material. If all types of fossil fuel disappeared tomorrow, I think this would have more of an impact that the loss of an energy source.

        Yes, you are right. However that's actually part of the reason why the dependence on fossil fuel and single use plastic is hugely dangerous. Although we will probably never "run out" completely of fossil fuels sources, as we use more and more we not only damage the health of the poor and the environment they live in (the rich can always buy up the few places that remain comfortable) but we also increase the long term costs of valuable plastic materials which is damaging for everyone.

        We should compare things like micro-hydro power with fossil fuels. Micro hydro provides a locally available, maintainable power source which the poor can rely on and which has limited negative impact on their local environment (especially compared to fossil fuels and large scale hydro, both of which can be terrible). Fossil fuels put the poor at the mercy of global markets, disappearing and becoming more expensive every time there is a war or the wrong kind of financial crisis.

        The same doesn't apply to long term multi-use plastic items. I have plastic handled tools that are well over 40 years old. They have a nicer shape than the wooden tools and allow me to work more efficiently, however if the plastic version wasn't available and cheaper then the wooden version would work as a substitute. The dependency here is much more positive than dependency on fuel.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @06:13AM (#55678919)

          Why has demand increased while global energy efficiency has also increased?

          population increased!

          Why do people tiptoe around the true cause like it's taboo or something?

          • by dpilot ( 134227 )

            Because a strong minority doesn't want to face the fact that we need to manage our population. Beyond that, they don't want to fact the fact that, "Just say no to sex!" simply isn't going to work, even if they wanted to manage the population. Even farther beyond that, they don't want to accept that if you really want to stop, or at least minimize abortions, you need to make birth control easily and readily available.

            I can manage to believe that both global warming and overpopulation are real - at the same

            • Most countries have a stable or decreasing population.
              I don't there any problem.
              We don't distribute food good enough, or in other words, in some regions warlords are reigning and snitching stuff away and let the population starve. Beyond that we have enough food for twice the population right now. 50% or more of all food is thrown away.

              As long as a country can cope with its population, either growing, stable or shrinking, there is no reason to intervene.

          • Why do people tiptoe around the true cause like it's taboo or something?

            Population growth is the only way to provide business growth. More goods and services to be sold, more profits to be made,

          • Why has demand increased while global energy efficiency has also increased? population increased!

            Good thought but demand per capita has also increased which means the rate of consumption has increased faster than the population growth.

          • Because the population increase is only a part of it, even considering that it probably doubled in the last 40 years.
            The other thing that increased is transportation, firstly cars and secondly ships and on top of that air traffic.

        • Local generation (Score:5, Insightful)

          by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @07:26AM (#55679113)

          We should compare things like micro-hydro power with fossil fuels.

          Compare them for what? Subsistence living? Small scale hydro is a Good Thing but for most people it's hardly going to be enough to meaningfully displace fossil fuels except as a very small part of a larger energy portfolio. Solar and wind are far more practical in most circumstances, even for local generation. I couldn't use micro-hydro anywhere close to my house because it's so geographically dependent and it's not an option at all for almost anyone not living in a fairly remote area.

          Fossil fuels put the poor at the mercy of global markets, disappearing and becoming more expensive every time there is a war or the wrong kind of financial crisis.

          No reasonably foreseeable amount of small scale local power generation is going to change that fact. Even if I put enough renewable energy into my house to power all my needs (including an EV), that still won't affect the impact on of fluctuating energy costs on manufacturing, transport, and agriculture. Modern agriculture is basically the process of turning diesel fuel into food and nearly all our transport systems are tied to fossil fuels currently. What needs to be emphasized is that we need a diverse portfolio of energy sources to mitigate economic disruptions from geopolitics. An important part of this will be local generation (solar roofs, etc) but we'll also need technologies for transport that aren't tied to fossil fuels (EVs) and for fossil fuels to actually have to bear the full cost of the pollution they generate.

          And yes you are quite right about one use plastics. That's a much bigger problem than most people realize.

        • The idealism of the young and/or dumb: the powers-that-be are hardly going to be lining up to allow every other small community the opportunity to become energy-independent. Have you not studied history? (That was a rhetorical question, btw.)

          I have plastic handled tools that are well over 40 years old.

          Those are very much the exception rather than the rule; wood stands up to hot/cold cycles and UV rays far better than plastic, is more comfortable to grip than plastic (especially in extreme temps) and doesn't off-gas a cocktail of cancer-causing and endocrine-disruptin

          • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

            Those are very much the exception rather than the rule; wood stands up to hot/cold cycles and UV rays far better than plastic, is more comfortable to grip than plastic (especially in extreme temps) and doesn't off-gas a cocktail of cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting vapors.

            ... unless it's treated lumber. Then your wood outgasses a cocktail of cancer-causing (chromated copper arsenate) and endocrine-disrupting (methyl bromide) vapors, too. Yay, progress.

          • Those are very much the exception rather than the rule; wood stands up to hot/cold cycles and UV rays far better than plastic, is more comfortable to grip than plastic (especially in extreme temps) and doesn't off-gas a cocktail of cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting vapors.

            Plastic isn't a single chemical. There are all sorts of plastics with all sorts of properties. For particular applications many of them easily outperform wood. Wood can be a fine thing to use too but to pretend that it outperforms plastic as a general proposition without specifying the application is simply willful ignorance or confirmation bias.

      • Also add in cement and similar kiln-fired products. Hard to make electric work at scale, and if you did it would be inherently less efficient as a high temperature heat source.

        Same goes for steel with coke.

    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @06:13AM (#55678921)

      The headline is false, of course. There is still a dependence, but "unchanged in 40 years" is bullshit.

      And "astonishing" is bullshit also. Nothing astonishing about it....

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @07:25AM (#55679107)

      When you think about just how much energy it takes to simply feed 7+ billion people and then the portable energy density in fossil fuels, there should be no astonishment.

    • I had more of a problem with Astonishing in the headline, as if we were not supposed to be using fossil fuels at all. It immediately tainted the summary and article as biased. Not good journalism...

  • The Coal Board (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Bongo ( 13261 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @04:29AM (#55678609)

    I recently saw a documentary by the British Coal Board, made in late sixties or so. Their economist went on to explain that the difference between "this" (pictures of Western developed industry manufacturing big things like ships) and "that" (pictures of developing world poor, surviving by making stuff with their bare hands) was ENERGY, and LOTS OF IT.

    Then they went on to explain that although nuclear had a lot of promise, it wasn't here yet, for various reasons they did not appear to want to dwell on, and that therefore coal would remain the heart of industry.

    I now nobody likes nuclear, and nobody likes consumerism, and we all want a quiet life in the countryside, until we need a hospital and emergency chopper ride, but essentially, there seems to be only one choice, between two kinds of energy:

    1. coal, oil, gas, wind, solar

    2. nuclear

    And the world keeps often choosing option 1.
    Which must be to the delight of all those vested interests in the oil and gas (and somewhat lesser extent coal) industries.

    • by MrKaos ( 858439 )

      I now nobody likes nuclear, and nobody likes consumerism, and we all want a quiet life in the countryside, until we need a hospital and emergency chopper ride, but essentially, there seems to be only one choice, between two kinds of energy:

      1. coal, oil, gas, wind, solar

      2. nuclear

      The oil and coal industry hold significant patents on the devices that make competing energy systems viable. Even the darling of Nuclear power technology, the Integral Fast Reactor has been destroyed by oil and coal industry lobbying. Nuclear power is used by the oil and coal industry as a way to extract taxation credits from the taxpayer, [citation] Section 600-657 US Energy Policy Act. [gpo.gov]

      Oil and Coal own the energy market and that is the way it will remain whilst they own the patents, the market and the

      • The oil and coal industry hold significant patents on the devices that make competing energy systems viable.

        Interesting. Do you have some of these patent numbers ?

        • Re:The Coal Board (Score:5, Informative)

          by MrKaos ( 858439 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @06:54AM (#55679023) Journal

          The oil and coal industry hold significant patents on the devices that make competing energy systems viable.

          Interesting. Do you have some of these patent numbers ?

          Sure, US4009052 [google.com],US3791867 [google.com], US3972759 [google.com], though I think it will be easier for you to start working your way through the Energy act I posted and you'll get an idea how the oil industry works.

          IIRC around sec 625 is where the funding is allocated to destroy the only demonstrated viable functioning prototype of the Integral Fast Reactor, a Fast Neutron Nuclear Reactor, high burn up rate (almost 20%) with a design that encapsulated a self contained fuel reprocessing facility, that produces electricity (obsoleting coal) and hydrogen (obsoleting oil - whilst maintaining existing vehicle fleets), producing medical isotopes, whilst burning through the stocks of enough weapons grade plutonium and Depleted uranium to power the US for the next 5000 years. Your tax dollars at work.

          I think it's important to consider if Oil and Coal would be motivated to maintain their multi-trilllion dollar profits and capable of doing this than greenies and NIMBYs that are so often accused. It's time for that stupid premise to be put aside with the naivety that allows it to be believed. Greenies and NIMBYs didn't argue for billions of dollars of subsidies to maintain oil industry profits and I think it's safe to say that a nuclear reactor that promotes nuclear disarmament is in everybody's interest. The US could export these reactors to Russia, China even North Korea and end global conflict within 5 years whilst solving the global nuclear waste issue, but oil.

          The only loser would have been oil and coal. You think they're going to give up trillions of dollars? No, they're gonna start lobbying, it's cheaper. Repealing the "New Deal PUCHA (Act)" that was put in place to prevent a repeat of the 1929 depression in the bargain so they can rort half billion dollar subsidy hits on delayed conventional nuclear facility construction, whilst claiming input tax credits. That's the reality of energy funding policy, that's how the scam works.

          Look for yourself, it's US law, enacted.

          • by Bongo ( 13261 )

            Thanks, very interesting reading.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward
            Hmmm... Those patents expired quite a while ago, what's stopping things now?
          • Are you seriously suggesting that a handful of old battery patents are what stopped all other modes of energy production from being competitive with fossil fuels? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is? Are you imagining that these were some magical unicorn batteries which could store 100 MWh per square centimetre or something?

    • ", for various reasons they did not appear to want to dwell on," - possibly didn;t want to disclose the level of subsidy to the nuclear generators to keep costs to teh consumer down
    • The problem with nuclear is simple economics. Neither the U.K. nor the US can build nuclear power plants today that are economically viable; in Georgia Plant Vogtle 3&4 are now likely to be cancelled due to cost overruns (and an incomplete design).

      If you could build it safe, cheap, on schedule, and manage the waste problem it would be a different story. Right now, even "safe" poses a significant challenge and everything else is out the window.

  • by Bearhouse ( 1034238 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @04:38AM (#55678635)

    A quick look at the graph in The Fine Article shows that indeed "fossil" looks flat; probably because in the late 70s and 80s nuclear was coming on-stream and hydrocarbon usage started to dip. Of course, the oil crisis helped. But then China exploded economically so hey - coal and gas came back up %age-wise. These days of course, "renewables" (why do I hate that term so much? The sun is not magically "renewing itself; it's literally burning to death...), anyway, solar & wind etc. are picking up where nuclear left off. The fact is that the cheapness, convenience and energy-density of hydrocarbons can't be beat in most situations in developing nations.

    • >(why do I hate that term so much? The sun is not magically "renewing itself; it's literally burning to death...),

      Yep. The term ought to be 'sustainable', though even then you have to have the caveat of, 'until the Sun renders the Earth uninhabitable'.

      Even thorium, that nuclear darling, annoys me because it's only good for about 1,000 years at current power production levels. Great, so we take maybe 500 years getting our entire civilization dependent on thorium (instead of the mere hundred we've spent

    • I wonder if the tipping point will come when off-the-shelf solar is cheap enough that it's the go-to for developing countries. I did some work a while ago with a non-profit in Tanzania and I they ended up deploying solar panels and batteries in a bunch of places because that gave them a more reliable power supply than the mains electricity. I smaller villages, they haven't run out grid power and they probably now won't because local solar generation is a lot cheaper. The big win for solar in this context
  • by duke_cheetah2003 ( 862933 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @05:08AM (#55678741) Homepage

    Some of the African countries are turning to the renewables first, skipping fossil fuels for electricity entirely. So that's gotta be at least one positive.

    Unfortunately, that's not really addressing transportation fuel consumption, which is the daddy of fossil fuel use.

    Just really frickin hard to argue with the utility and bang for your buck when it comes to hydrocarbon based liquid and gas fuels. They're just freakin awesome.

    Electric cars are nice and all, but they do require a supporting grid to recharge from. They're going to help in developed countries for sure. But will that offset the growth in poorer countries that just don't have the infrastructure?

    When you figure the balance sheet at the end of the year, if we're still putting a lot of CO2 into the atmo, we got serious problems inbound. I mean, humans will adapt, but it's not going to be pretty.

    • Re:It's not all bad (Score:4, Interesting)

      by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @05:10AM (#55678747) Homepage Journal

      Electric cars are nice and all, but they do require a supporting grid to recharge from. They're going to help in developed countries for sure. But will that offset the growth in poorer countries that just don't have the infrastructure?

      EVs can actually provide infrastructure, if they have enough battery. You can charge it up in town during the day (while the sun is shining) and then drive it home and use it to power your house.

    • Some of the African countries are turning to the renewables first, skipping fossil fuels for electricity entirely.

      I don't know where you read that, but it's wrong. No country skipped fossil fuels entirely and went straight to renewables. Few countries in Africa even made it to "a significant percentage of renewables for energy".

  • by tinkerton ( 199273 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @05:11AM (#55678749)

    there are a few (very) interesting speeches on youtube from Vaclav Smil where he explains that energy transitions (wood to fossil fuel, fossil fuel to solar )are a slow process, completely contrary to the speed of innovation. For instance here https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    There's no 'law of energy transitions' forbidding fast transitions, but it's very hard and it's worth understanding why it's hard.

    • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

      energy transitions (wood to fossil fuel, fossil fuel to solar )are a slow process, completely contrary to the speed of innovation.

      It's like when LCD displays came out. Yes, there were LCD displays but CRT was far superior. When LCD finally caught up 10-15 years later, it was mass adopted because they were cheaper AND better.

      • Smil's point is that energy transitions are much slower than that.

        • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

          Smil's point is that energy transitions are much slower than that.

          Fair enough but my point is, I don't know why we would find this surprising given that this is how most technological change occurs, it's just a question of the speed of the transition. Expecting everything to happen right away when scientists and engineers are working as fast as they can and complaining that it isn't going fast enough doesn't help anything.

          • It was surprising to me that such a transition would require two or more generations. That's because like more people I was thinking more in terms of availability of high level technology rather than a complete switch of more 'fundamental' technology on a world scale.

            • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

              It was surprising to me that such a transition would require two or more generations

              What basis would you have to believe that? The Steam Engine was invented in 1698. The Combustion Engine was invented in 1859.

  • if you put a tax on them that is used exclusively to remove the CO2 byproduct from the air. Sure, it would be cheaper just to use electricity but if you really gotta have it, you can pay for it. Now we just need to build a hundred thousand of these machines. [all-that-i...esting.com] This is in line with "there is no free lunch" that insensitive clods love to tout on other issues.

    Phasing fossil fuels out is not an impossible task but we need to slow and then halt the tragedy-of-the-commons that is happening every day that we do n

  • Peak demand for oil (Score:3, Informative)

    by Bruno Magalhaes Lopes ( 4759989 ) <brunomagalhaeslopes AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @07:00AM (#55679039)
    Some years ago, you could find thousands of books on Amazon about "Peak oil". The basic idea: Cheap oil sources are increasingly harder to find and we would have reached that point around 2010, when the price of an oil barrel passed the US$ 100 mark, and stayed there for good. Soon we would face wars for oil, the decline of the western civilization, riots on the streets, or all this together.

    The demand for oil in China has decreased, and now the price of an oil barrel is around US$ 50. Everyone now is talking about "peak demand": oil consumption in OECD countries is almost flat for the last ten years, and the major source of growth comes from China.

    Oil consumption is on the highest levels of human history, but with little change for the last decade. Meanwhile, the potential of growth of an important renewable source became scarce for the last couple decades: hydropower. It will take some time for us to actually see a decrease on consumption of oil and coal, as other renewables increase their share on the world energy consumption.

  • Elephant in the room: the hindbrain drives an subconscious need to procreate. As a successful species, we are out of control.

    "The human race is in so much trouble that it needs to colonize another planet within 100 years or face extinction." - Dr. Stephen Hawking

    • by Bongo ( 13261 )

      There's a case that that's driven by child mortality. When child mortality is high, women have lots of children. Then as conditions improve, there's an overshoot in population. But women do not want to spend all their time having babies. When child mortality is minimal, they return to a replacement rate of 2 per couple -- "even" a land like Bangladesh has reduced its child rate to around 2. Hence the predictions now that the world population will stabilise at about 9 or 10 billion. And on the plus side, tha

  • by zifn4b ( 1040588 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @07:34AM (#55679131)
    When there is a technology that is superior that doesn't require fossil fuels, this will change. Chop chop scientists!
  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @08:13AM (#55679279)

    As wealthy countries have shifted away from fossil fuels, the poorest countries have moved from no energy usage to industrial use of fossil fuels. It's like a..well, a pipeline.

  • by jcr ( 53032 ) <jcr.mac@com> on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @08:32AM (#55679375) Journal

    People use coal, gas and oil because they deliver more power for the money than alternatives in many applications. We'll switch when the cost curves cross, the same way we shifted from wood to coal.

    -jcr

    • These headlines are an easy way to be confident that the article is a complete waste of time. Which raises the question about Slashdot...

  • Other than fuel efficient vehicles, which are causing local, state and federal governments to worry they are not receiving enough tax money, I say drill now, drill often.
  • by RogueWarrior65 ( 678876 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @09:55AM (#55679769)

    If greenhouse gas emissions are indeed a global problem, why do developing countries get a pass on emission limits? Because they're poor? Gotta do better than that.

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Tuesday December 05, 2017 @01:29PM (#55681515) Journal
    Prices need to come down for things like EVs, Wind, Solar, Nuclear, etc. And that is the case.
    Interestingly, Elon Musk is driving this more than any single nation, business, or person. Kind of sad, and yet, in the future, he will be regarded as a true hero for this.

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