Renewables and the Future of Oil Companies

by John Brian Shannon.

It may surprise you to know that the world’s oil companies see renewables as an unstoppable force. Some oil companies have issued landmark reports informing us that by 2100 at the latest the world will be getting 90% of its energy from renewable energy, indicating this could happen as early as 2060 under certain geopolitical conditions.

Although oil companies were initially hesitant to embrace renewable energy, in recent years their position has changed somewhat, as the many positive attributes of renewables began to convince senior oil executives that changes were on the horizon and their choice was to either embrace that change or accept an ever-declining energy market share. By their own admission only 10% of late-century energy will be met by petroleum.

In the final analysis, energy is energy after all, and it is the energy business that the oil companies are in.

So, rather than cede energy market share to up-and-coming renewable energy companies, big oil decided to become involved in renewables, first with biofuel, then solar, and later, wind. Some oil companies even purchased solar companies with their already installed and operating solar farms to gain experience in the new frontier.

The Oil Industry: Early Oil

In the early 20th century it was all about the oil, but in the later 20th century it was all about refining it into diverse products and the oil industry then morphed into a much larger entity named the petrochemical industry which created billions of tons of plastics, fertilizers, liquids, products and even medicines every year. The petrochemical sector includes the natural gas segment and thousands of miles of pipelines exist on every continent except Antarctica to move methane from gas wells to processing facilities and then forward it as usable natural gas to the end users.

A much larger industry had sprung up out of the original oil industry, one that was far larger than the one that had merely pulled oil out of the ground and refined it for transportation use.

The High Cost of Oil

Almost all countries heavily subsidize their oil and natural gas industries, and the United States is a great example. Oil companies there get over $4 billion dollars per year (yes, every year) to ensure stable petroleum supplies, compliance with regulations even in difficult drilling locations, and to help levelize gasoline prices across the country.

It is commonly reported that the petroleum industry (worldwide) receives over $500 billion dollars worth of subsidies and tax breaks every year. The worldwide oil and gas subsidy reported by the EIA for 2012 was $550 billion dollars and 2013 will have a similar subsidy figure attached to it.

Besides the massive taxpayer funded subsidy scheme for oil and gas are the externalities associated with the burning of all those long dead and liquefied dinosaurs. For each ton of gasoline burned, 4.5 tons of CO2 are created. If you add up all the billions of tons of gasoline that have been burned since the first Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line on August 12, 1908, it totals an incredible amount of CO2. Not to mention the billions of tons of non-CO2 airborne emissions created by our petroleum burning transportation sector since that date.

All this burning has a significant healthcare cost for nations (look at China, for example) and pollution-related damages will continue to affect the agriculture sector and cause damage (spalling) to concrete structures like buildings, bridges and some roads.

Although an excellent source of energy for motive power with high output per unit, the necessary high subsidies and unfortunate climate-changing externalities have conspired to considerably shorten the age of oil.

Natural Gas, the ‘Bridge Fuel’ to a Renewables Future

The oil companies are ahead of regulators on this one. Knowing that emission regulations were getting stricter every decade, petroleum companies knew that they had to pull a rabbit out of a hat, as gasoline and diesel can burn only so cleanly without prohibitively expensive technology. This is why we hear every day about ‘Natural Gas the Bridge Fuel to the Future’ and how natural gas will revolutionize our power generation segment and transportation sector.

Convincing regulators, utility companies, and automakers to switch to natural gas became the new mantra of oil company executives in order to meet increasingly stringent emission targets in developed and emerging nations.

The ‘Bridge Fuel’ will peak between 2040 and 2045 in most published oil company scenarios and somewhere between 2060 and 2100 natural gas itself will be almost completely replaced by renewables.

Although natural gas is hundreds of times cleaner burning than other fuels, it still emits plenty of CO2, but emits only minute quantities of toxic gases — and, importantly, no airborne soot or particulates.

By mid-century or 2100 at the latest, cleaner burning natural gas will be replaced in order to meet emission targets, and natural gas would lose out to renewable energy anyway — even without emission regulations — for the simple reason that solar and wind have zero fuel cost associated with their operation, while natural gas will always have a fuel cost and a separate delivery cost per gigajoule.

Imagine all of the costs involved in prospecting for and siting natural gas fields, purchasing the land, drilling, installing pipelines, processing methane into natural gas and adding even more pipelines to deliver natural gas to the end user. It all adds up, and even the most efficient gas producers/processors/pipeliners must cover their overhead.

There are no comparable ongoing fuel or distribution overheads with renewable energy.

What will we miss in the Clean Energy Future?

Once a solar or wind power plant hits completion all it needs is for the Sun to rise or the wind to blow. No drilling, no processing, no pipelines, no supertanker spills or pollution, and no CO2 sequestration required. Just plenty of clean renewable energy.

For all the right reasons, renewables are making progress. Economics, human health and our environment are the factors driving this energy change-up.

Let’s hope in our energy future that oil companies and gas companies, simply yet profoundly, morph themselves into energy companies and upon actualizing it, become renewable energy companies in the process.

For further renewable energy reading:

World Cumulative Solar Photovoltaics Installations,  2000-2012
The world installed 31,100 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2012—an all-time annual high that pushed global PV capacity above 100,000 megawatts. There is now enough PV operating to meet the household electricity needs of nearly 70 million people at the European level of consumption. Image courtesy of the Earth Policy Institute
World Cumulative Installed Wind Power Capacity 1980-2012
Even amid policy uncertainty in major wind power markets, wind developers still managed to set a new record for installations in 2012–with 44,000 megawatts of new wind capacity worldwide. With total capacity exceeding 280,000 megawatts, wind farms generate carbon-free electricity in more than 80 countries, 24 of which have at least 1,000 megawatts. At the European level of consumption, the world’s operating wind turbines could satisfy the residential electricity needs of 450 million people. Image courtesy of the Earth Policy Institute.

Published by

John Brian

Editorial Board at kleef&co. Published by the UNDP.

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