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Will We Ever Break Free From Fossil Fuels?

200 Years of "Progress" in Fossil Fuels
200 Years of “Progress” in Fossil Fuels

In spite of great advances in renewable energy utilization, will we ever break free from our addiction to fossil fuels?

For example, in the last couple of years, solar power generation in the United States has actually started to surpass fossil fuel power, at least in terms of new generating capacity. Wind power in Spain generates some 20% of national energy needs, about half of the total 42% renewable energy that powers the country. We can go online to blogs and news outlets and read about renewable energy and its many benefits, but perhaps we fail to notice where these advances are taking place. Specifically, established first-world economies.

On the other hand, rapidly-growing economies, such as China and India, are falling into place with the rest of the world, except their revolutions are starting where the US and EU started 200 years ago. Powered by easy-to-access and low-tech fossil fuels, the result is some of the world’s worst air pollution on record. About 2/3 of the power in China, for example, comes from coal. Even optimistic outlooks do not predict that number dropping below 1/3 in the next twenty years. Other developing economies are similar, and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie predicts that coal will actually surpass oil as the most-abundant fossil fuel energy source.

Finally, there are still plenty of underdeveloped countries, which will likely follow the same path, lacking the financing and technology to develop massive renewable energy programs. There are only two ways to come up with that kind of development capital. One, they could get the way the rest of the world did, but exploiting low-cost low-tech fossil fuels, an economic step forward, yet environmentally catastrophic. On the other hand, developing countries could pour everything they have into renewable energy, and the rest of the developed world could pitch in to get them going. Yeah, right, like that will ever happen.

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  1. Chimel True, developing countries don’t need to invent anything new. They can at least adopt, but this will cost. Take, Peru and Ecuador, for example. They are both rich in natural resources, including fossil fuels.  What technology do you think they’ll turn to first when it comes time for growth? Will they look outside their borders for renewable energy technology? More likely, they’ll look to whatever fossil fuels are already within their borders, a much cheaper and easier option.
    Personally, I would hope that these countries would look at the long-term, rather than the short-term, gains. On the other hand, however, there are more than enough mining companies willing to strip these countries bare of their natural resources, and enough politicians to accept their bribes to overlook the damages. Even if the enlightened ones were in control, opting for a renewable energy plan for the country, two other outcomes would be likely. One, there are still plenty of unenlightened ones to push for extraction and use of fossil fuels (this explains OPEC member states’ push for renewable energy within their borders). Two, the locals would say, “Why are we spending our money on foreign technology instead of just mining what’s right beneath our feet?”

  2. “lacking the financing and technology to develop massive renewable energy programs”
    Not really relevant or as important as is being made sound like: Not a single one of these developing countries needs to invent new renewable technologies, they are already all there for the taking, they just need to purchase existing technological hardware and designs, like solar panel, wind turbines, and there’s dozens of countries and companies that would be more than happy to install them for these countries until they have acquired the know-how from their own education programs.

    Financing is a more difficult question, but most of these countries are in high insulation areas where the solar ROI would happen in half the time needed for countries like the USA where new solar power plants are already competitive with coal and getting closer to natural gas every day, so you’d think that for these countries at least, solar would make a lot of sense. Also, many of these countries don’t have a costly national grid the scale of the ones maintained by developed countries, so local distributed solar plants could be much cheaper than trying to emulate the Western World centralized grids. Also, many of these countries don’t even have coal or coal mines, or a good road and train grid, so coal is not even an option if you need to import and transport it.

    There are no doubt many other variables at play, so I don’t think we can make the  kind of generalized statement as above, the situation needs to be studied and assessed for every single country before the results can give us such a generalized view. For me, the fossil fuel situation resulting from developing countries is not as dire and is more nuanced. Despite the catastrophic situation in China, their carbon emissions per person are still half those of the USA, for instance, and they now have a solar energy plan that’s more ambitious than any other country in the world. They’ll still have pollution from coal power plants to deal with for decades, and these will affect the whole world too, but there’s a strong national will in favor of solar, and in a strange way, the lack of democratic processes similar to the Western World makes it easier for China to implement such a renewable energy plan. And the USA is so behind its times that it probably won’t take long for China to be a world leader not just in solar cell production, but in solar energy production too. Equipping their own country with solar is also an incredibly smart way of dealing with the past overproduction of solar cells. My 2 cents.


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