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A Worthy Competitor: How Renewables Compare to the Oil and Gas Industry

Fiona Waters

December 07, 2020

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Before I knew what I know now about renewable sources of energy, I wondered why they weren't everywhere already. Don't solar panels eventually pay for themselves? Aren't the environmental effects of windmills much less severe than those of burning coal? Then I found out that electric cars were invented long before gas-powered cars. "By the turn of the century, more than a third of all cars on American roads [were] electric." I was reeling.

That was the moment I realized it was factors besides degree of environmental friendliness that made a product appealing. Environmental psychologists have known this for decades. Technological trends have been, historically, influenced by a few factors, namely mass-producibility on the factory's part, convenience on the consumer's part, and innovation on the part of researchers, engineers, and society in general. In the oil and gas industry, the funds available for each of these ventures is determined by lobbying. That's why, in the push for renewable energy, it's important to keep the facts top-of-mind.

All About Oil and Gas

The future of energy consumption is looking up. Oil is easier than ever to access from the Earth's crust, we're getting "more energy per unit of CO2 than ever before," and objects that use electricity require less energy. So what's the rush to renewable resources all about?

A 2012 study found that "87 percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil." That makes gas and oil major contributors to climate change. The other issue is that, even though technology has become more efficient at using oil and gas, there is more technology in existence. Engineering feats like smartphones, Internet servers, and electricity in general are being implemented into everyone's daily lives across the world.

Crude oil is found underground in "pockets," between two layers of rock and is collected by boring into the ground. It is essentially the remains of sea creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago, chemically transformed, meaning the sea is particularly rich with oil deposits. That's where the term "fossil fuels" comes from. If this was solar or wind, collecting that crude material would be the end of the story. With crude oil, however, the product needs to be transported by boat, train, truck, or pipe to be refined before it can be used.

Oil and gas disasters wreak environmental havoc. Ocean spills like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can impact the ecosystem for decades. "Significant" pipeline spills are not rare, and leave the environment polluted, even after they are cleaned up. Recently, the Standing Rock Reservation has led efforts to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline after it was installed against the Fort Laramie Treaty. A leak could pollute the Missouri River, the water supply of over 8,000 tribal members.

The finite nature of oil and gas, and its increasing difficulty to obtain, has also led to a process known as fracking. Advancements in technology and its relative affordability -- as oil prices soared -- helped it gain popularity after the year 2000. It involves drilling into the ground to crack open rocks that release oil and gas. The process has led to contaminated water sources, earthquakes, and air pollution.

All this effort is for a substance that the world may depend on, but that is relatively inefficient. Multiple sources find natural gas to have an energy return on investment (EROI) similar to solar and far below coal. It takes a lot of energy to obtain natural gas, but burning it does not produce very much energy. Hydroelectric energy has a higher EROI by far.

Oil and gas also aren't renewable. If we continue to consume oil and gas at today's rates, estimates predict they will last us just over 50 years. At the very least, even if we don't pursue an entirely "green" energy source, we need to reduce oil and gas consumption immensely. That's only possible through technical innovation: one part improving renewable energy sources so that they're better at capturing energy and another part engineering tools that use less fuel.

Reviewing Renewables

A renewable energy source is one that will never run out, simply because its supply is replaced naturally, for example, solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal. Mechanical engineer Dr. Shini Somara, with PBS Digital Studios, explains, "The amount of sunlight the earth receives in just a single year is twice the total amount of energy that will ever be extracted from fossil fuels and the uranium used in nuclear fission combined." Humans can't "use up" renewable resources. They are abundant, regularly replenished through natural processes, and ready to be harnessed.

Let's start with biomass energy which is essentially wood, sawdust, and animal waste. It was the first type of fuel humans used and it is technically "renewable." More can always be made. Environmentalists dispute claims that it is carbon-neutral, however. Carbon-neutral energy sources take just as much energy to produce as they release when burned. While biomass energy, specifically wood, does release the energy it captured when it was growing, forests take years to mature. Like burning oil and gas, burning many trees at once releases the carbon they collected over decades in just the course of a few minutes.

Next, "the most widely-used renewable power source" is hydropower. It produces as much as 70% of all of the world's renewable energy and has an EROI of more than twice that of its closest competitor. Dams don't produce emissions or pollution, are maintained for a low cost, and have been used to produce power since the late 1800s. Its pitfalls are foreseeable. You need a consistent source of water, but damming a river floods the ecosystem. There is also a risk of the dam breaking or overflowing, though it's important to keep in mind that the environmental effects of a flood are less permanent than those of oil well pollution or the radioactivity of a nuclear reactor meltdown.

These next renewable sources of energy -- wind, solar, and geothermal -- suffer from a reliability issue. There is not an efficient way to maintain a constant source of power for them. With gas and oil, the energy is stored in the product itself, no battery required. Not only that, the operation of the following renewables is dependent on the state of the environment. Particularly with solar power, a cloudy day might mean less power available without a battery charge (although "thermophotovoltaic" solar cells may one day reduce this effect). A sudden surge in the demand for power might also leave these sources obsolete. Recent feats in engineering are improving renewables' function and storage capabilities, but scaling them up to serve a large town or grid will take time.

Wind power, using windmills, is the most used renewable behind hydropower. Its EROI is much lower than hydropower, but still higher than other energy sources. The most apparent issue with wind energy is its transformation of the landscape at large scales. More critically, it loses some of the energy it produces as the power travels through wires, making it difficult to integrate into a power grid. There's also its effect on birds; in fact, hundreds of thousands are killed every year by wind turbines. Researchers are investigating solutions to both of these issues. One thing is for sure -- the solutions will come from engineering innovations.

Geothermal energy is only used in a few areas of the world, where it makes sense to put the money and effort into digging sites to enable it, such as Iceland, El Salvador, New Zealand, Kenya, and Philippines. It is highly dependent on weather conditions, however, making it a poor contender for power grids, unless there are a large number of them in many different locations.

Then, of course, it's the belle of the ball: solar energy. At this point, solar panels are everywhere. They're on your phone charger, on the umbrellas of your outdoor table, attached to your backpack, on roofs, and sometimes even are roofs. The reason they're so pervasive is because of their portability and storage capabilities. (Carrying around a windmill would be pretty impractical.)

Sixty years ago, solar panels were a whopping $1,910 per watt produced. You might have only found them on spacecraft. Today, they cost less than 80 cents per watt. These guys have actually been around since the year 1888, another fact that amazes me. Today, their EROI matches or is even higher than that of natural gas. With the help of technical innovation, affordability, and mass-producibility, solar panels are set to take over as the dominant energy source.

As we move from non-renewable oil and gas sources to hydro, solar, geothermal, and wind sources, we'll have to employ a combination of all four in order to transition. "Today we get our energy from more sources than we ever have before," says Dr. Joe Hanson, science writer for PBS Digital Studios. That includes renewables, natural gas and oil, coal, biomass, and nuclear sources. This means that if one disappears, it isn't as dire as it would have been in the past. Diversifying renewable energy sources would have the same effect.

The Case Study of Electric Cars

There were a few reasons that cars powered by gasoline beat out electric ones. Henry Ford (though an American icon, not necessarily someone to idolize) perfected the assembly line to manufacture gas-powered cars much more efficiently than any battery-powered car. Gas-powered cars simply had an infrastructure; they were easier to make. In 2020, that's changed with the efforts of companies like Tesla, Toyota, and Nissan.

Making cars this way also produced a cheaper product. Just like modern day fast fashion and fast furniture, making an item more affordable for the consumer also makes it more accessible. This is a method that almost every startup takes advantage of. Nowadays, the cost of EV batteries is plummeting, making them even more enticing and available to consumers.

The final nail in the coffin for early electric cars was their poor range and low speeds compared to cars running on gasoline. Originally, they were considered superior because starting them did not involve cranking the engine. The reason that gas engines eventually caught up? Technological innovation. Gas-powered cars eventually did away with the hand-crank method of starting, and soon after became the dominant vehicle. The innovations of EV batteries are now enabling the same change.

Somewhat related is the conspiracy theory of the disappearance of Los Angeles' Red Cars and Yellow Car trolleys. Los Angeles is known for its "driving culture," but the lack of public transportation doesn't match California's environmentalist image. (Public transportation is better for the environment for a number of reasons.) Angelenos attribute the lack of a decent system to the city's public railway transportation being gutted in the mid-century by companies with financial interests in oil and rubber. The company put in charge of public transportation supposedly wanted Angelenos to buy their own cars or ride buses rather than save fuel by using a public option.

In 1946, the Justice Department did file an antitrust suit against the company in charge of Yellow Car trolleys "for conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry." Whether National City Lines intended to strip Los Angeles of its public transportation in favor of buses and cars is still controversial. The population of Los Angeles was expanding into areas beyond the reaches of the rail line, but even after the line's revival, Los Angeles opted for a bus system instead.

The technological innovations in renewable energy that make it a worthy competitor of oil and gas, however, are indisputable. The recently passed 2020 Long Range Transportation Plan adds over 100 miles of rail to the metro system and bans the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.

Innovation Shapes the Future

When I think about the electric car being invented about ten years before the gas car, or the solar panel being invented in a time when it was still impolite to drink alcohol around ladies, I do get mad that efforts were not made to research these environmentally friendly inventions further. With the green revolution happening now, it's clear that other energy sources beat renewables out simply because they had the money to improve rapidly and move into mass production. Now, green energies have the financial incentive to improve. The less a product can rely on fossil fuels, the better.

Fighting for renewable energy takes arguments from every angle, and technological innovations bolster those arguments. This decade has seen the success of renewable Beyond Beef and Mycelium fabric, as well as the commercialization of portable solar power banks and long-range electric cars. Research and design has made these unthinkable feats possible. Starting off the year 2021 with sustainable machinery as the foundation means it will be another decade of innovation.

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