One of the greatest uncertainties we are facing today is the duration of the global energy sector’s transition from fossil fuels – including oil, natural gas, and coal – to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. This debate is overshadowed by the interests of oil companies in exploiting fossil fuels to the fullest extent possible and by the guilt complex of politicians that have governed developed countries in recent decades, who have often dismissed the need to combat climate change caused by the increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Vaclav Smil, one of the most reputable researchers and authorities on energy transitions, the major global energy transitions, from wood to coal, then to oil, and subsequently to gas, have each taken 50-60 years; there is no reason to believe that a shift to renewable energy will be faster.
Global energy demand has almost doubled in the last two decades. In countries where living standards have risen rapidly, like India and China, coal has been burned to produce more energy as governments connect people in rural towns and sprawling megacities to power grids for the first time. In developed countries where electricity has become cleaner, such as in the US and Europe, coal is being phased out by gas as the main source of energy.
Portugal is a good example, as one of the early adopters of renewable energy production, but even after 15 years solar and wind energy make up only 7.3% of the overall national energy supply. And hydroelectric production – accounting for 3.5% – has been decreasing. Natural gas (24%) is not replacing petroleum products, which remain the main source of energy (40-43%). And in many countries this will remain the case for a long time given the low disposable income, which will gradually contract the already low rate of electric vehicle (EV) sales.
The European Parliament has adopted measures such as prohibiting the sale of combustion vehicles from 2035. It is very likely that this target will be adjusted, as illustrated by the statements of VW’s CEO warning of the unrealistic European targets for EVs. It is also almost certain that several other hyperbolic and unrealistic targets set in reports by the International Energy Agency (IEA) will need to be adjusted.
The commitment in the developed world to a swift energy transition is not being followed by the new emerging powers, such as India and China, for whom the priority is still the security of energy supply. The ongoing war in Ukraine and the uncertainty it has brought about have increased the number of Europeans and Americans who share this priority.
International data on the growth rate of renewable sources and energy storage show that the energy transition will take a long time to accomplish. According to Smil, one should expect that the transition will take several decades, possibly two generations. To sell tomorrows that sing along with wishful thinking bordering on magical thinking will prove costly in political credibility and contribute to the erosion of democracy.