What Would The World Look Like Without Fossil Fuels?
The United States is fortunate to enjoy abundant natural resources, including a diverse energy portfolio. While much attention is paid to climate change, we tend to ignore the tremendous benefits that we enjoy because of that abundant energy mix, including coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear and renewables. In particular, the backbone of our electricity generation depends on fossil fuels. 67 percent of U.S. power generation depends on them because they meet the tremendous demands of our country for affordable, reliable energy. Globally, fossil fuels provide about 87 percent of the world’s energy needs.
Fossil fuels are in demand because they are dependable. As World Bank President Jim Young Kim has commented, “There’s never been a country that has developed with intermittent power.” Intermittent power is power that is not continuously available due to factors, as in the case of renewables, when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. In comparison, baseload power sources are those plants that can generate dependable power to consistently meet demand over a 24-hour period. Only coal, nuclear, gas and large-scale hydro can provide baseload power.
In a world where over 2.6 billion people lack reliable electricity leading to poverty, lack of proper medical care and inadequate nutrition, fossil fuels have played a central role in addressing the urgent needs of those who are suffering. Fossil fuels have lifted over 660 million people in China out of poverty. Yet even today, over one billion people still lack adequate health care; and 400 million people in India alone remain without electricity. Affluent nations need to strongly consider the U.N.’s first millennium goal: To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. This moral imperative cannot be accomplished without the life-saving benefit of fossil fuels.
(INSERT EIA WORLD ENERGY OUTLOOK GRAPHIC HERE FROM WORLD COAL BRIEFING DOC: It shows millions of people without electricity and millions of people without clean cooking facilities.)
Our Food Supply Depends On Them:
Farms growing the crops and raising the livestock to feed our nation depend on reliable electricity from fossil fuels to irrigate their fields, heat their barns, thresh their wheat and gather their corn. The trains that transport those goods to market and the refrigerators we use to preserve and keep them safe all rely on fossil fuels.
Our Health And Medical Care Depends On Them:
Hospitals, medical care and laboratories all depend on fossil fuels to generate the electricity that powers dialysis machines, respirators, MRI and EKG machines, XRays, to name a few. Just about any aspect of medical care depends on the power from fossil fuels.
Our Advanced Standard Of Living Depends On Them:
Our high-tech devices, including computers, tablets, smart phones, high def TVs and iPods, all depend on fossil fuels. In fact, the world’s Information-Communications Technologies (ICT) ecosystem uses as much electricity annually as the electric generation of Japan and Germany combined.
Our homes, with heat and air conditioning to keep us comfortable and protected in all types of weather conditions are powered by fossil fuels.
New technology advancements, from electric cars to wind turbines, all depend on power from fossil fuels.
Globally, increased fossil fuels use, and particularly coal, which is affordable and readily available, has led to improved quality of life because as electricity consumption increases, infant mortality rate decreases and access to improved drinking water sources increases. (World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014)
What About Fossil Fuels’ Impact On The Environment?
Fossil fuels do emit by-products, examples being particulates such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), Nitrous oxide (NO2) and _____ .
In the U.S., however, while we have seen an increase in fossil fuel use since 1970, U.S. air pollution has gone down. This is due to the development of advanced anti-pollution technologies. For example, a new coal power plant employing advanced technologies emits 90 percent fewer emissions than the older coal plant it replaces.
Globally, fossil fuel-based energy has resulted in:
- Tremendous increases in safe water, through pipelines, water treatment centers and disinfectant processes;
- Eradication of deadly diseases through manufacture of vaccinations, construction of medical centers for preventative tests and application of advanced technologies around treatment and prevention;
- modern sanitation systems that have wiped out major diseases, such as cholera.
The advantage of advanced technologies is that while we enjoy the benefits of fossil fuels, we can also use technology to minimize the risks or by-products produced when fossil fuels are transformed into energy.
What About Carbon Emissions?
As climate scientists have increasingly focused on CO2 emissions and their impact on climate, industry has steadily been making progress in developing new methods of minimizing those emissions.
Power plants being built today emit 90 percent less pollutants (SO2, NOx, particulates and mercury) than the plants they replace from the 1970s, according the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). Regulated emissions from coal-based electricity generation have decreased overall by over 40 percent since the 1970s, while coal use has tripled, according to government statistics.
In the case of coal, on average, the newer Super Critical Pulverized Coal plants are on average 20 percent more efficient and in the best cases as much as 32 percent lower in emissions than the older plants scheduled to retire – representing a significant improvement. Some of the newest Ultra Super Critical Pulverized Coal plants are close to 40 percent more efficient, rendering sizable reductions in carbon emissions.
In the case of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies, exploring methods of collecting most of the carbon emissions and storing them, or repurposing them, those technologies are still in the developmental or trial phases. However, several projects that are in progress hold promise, including:
- Kemper project in Mississippi;
- FutureGen 2.0 (DOE recently announced that it is suspending funding for this project)
- Summit’s Texas Clean Energy Project in Texas, among several others.
No energy source is perfect, but the application of advanced technologies is rendering fossil fuels– by far the largest source of energy around the world– increasingly more efficient, and thus lowering their impact on the environment.
 Source: US Energy Information Administration
 Source: WorldWatch Institute
 Source: Worldbank.org
 Source: World Energy Outlook
 Source: U.S. EPA National Emissions inventory Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data
- On February 9, 2015