The Powers of Fossil Fuels

In this post I present a brief perspective spanning two centuries of the history of energy and mainly fossil fuels (FFs) consumption. Then a brief look at the recent years growth in solar and wind (renewables) and how their growth measures up against FFs since 1990.

Figure 1: The chart above shows the developments in the world’s total energy consumption split on sources as from 1800 and into 2013. The chart has been developed in a joint between Dr Nate Hagens and me.
Figure 1: The chart above shows the developments in the world’s total energy consumption split on sources as from 1800 and into 2013. The chart has been developed in a joint effort between Dr Nate Hagens and me.

In the early 1800s biomass (primarily wood) were humans’ primary source for exogenous energy. Coal became increasingly introduced into the energy mixture after the successful development and deployment of the steam engine which gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Coal is a nonrenewable, abundant and a denser energy source than wood. The growing use of biomass had led to deforestation in those areas serving energy intensive industries like mining and metals. The steam engine and its use of abundant coal as an energy source made it possible to rapidly expand the industrial production, create economic growth, thus the Industrial Revolution was in reality a revolution made possible by fossil fuels. With the most recent discoveries and introduction of fossil oil and natural gas there appeared to be several abundant sources of volumetric dense energy that could entertain exponential and illusive economic growth. Fossil fuels represent natures’ legacy stock of dense energy (ancient sunlight) that during some decades has been subject to an accelerated depletion. Several reports in the media may now leave the impression that we are at the threshold for a smooth transition from FFs to renewables (solar and wind). However, how does this measure up against hard data? The Renewables (Solar and Wind)

Figure 2: The stacked areas in the chart above show the developments in the consumption (production) of energy from the renewables (solar [yellow] and wind [turquoise]) from 1990 to 2013.
Figure 2: The stacked areas in the chart above show the developments in the consumption (production) of energy from the renewables (solar [yellow] and wind [turquoise]) from 1990 to 2013.
Perhaps it was from studying a similar chart that a speaker at the recent Offshore Northern Seas 2014 (ONS 2014) in Stavanger, Norway and according to a media headline made the bold statement;”The fossil dinosaurs will go extinct” (in Norwegian). (With the term “dinosaurs” it is here believed the speaker referred to the fossil fuels industry.) The speaker will with time be proven right, but demonstrates simultaneously a complete lack of comprehension of what the statement entails and  thus ignorance of the powers of FFs. I am all for renewable energy (I live in a country that presently gets around two thirds of its energy consumption from hydroelectricity and which is one of the worlds biggest exporters of oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectricity). No doubt renewable energy will have a role in our future, but the extent of its role is subject to much (heated) debate. For those that closely have followed my posts (primarily at The Oil Drum and here at Fractional Flow) will have found that recently I have focused on some recurrent themes; oil (FF) prices/costs, total global debt levels, interest rates, consumers’ affordability, fossil fuel companies’ financial health, central banks’ policies (most important the Federal Reserve Bank [FRB]), and some more. By carefully studying the recent years growth in consumption and installations of renewables (solar and wind) one will observe that their growth occured as total global debt grew strongly, interest rates were lowered and kept low (to allow for growth in total debt) and some governments allowed for competitive advantages for renewables. Despite all the technological improvements for renewables that has brought their costs down (and further improvements are likely to follow), renewables are, like FFs, also at the mercy of consumers’ affordability. The Race between Fossil Fuels and Renewables

Figure 3: The chart above shows the growth in the world’s consumption of fossil fuels (oil [green], natural gas [red] and coal [dark grey] stacked versus the growth in renewables (solar [yellow] and wind [turquoise]), also stacked and all since 1990 to 2013.
Figure 3: The chart above shows the growth in the world’s consumption of fossil fuels (oil [green], natural gas [red] and coal [dark grey] stacked versus the growth in renewables (solar [yellow] and wind [turquoise]), also stacked and all since 1990 to 2013.
By putting the growth between FFs and renewables into a perspective, it demonstrates how dependent our economies, our wealth and well beings are upon FFs. Looking at the growth in total FFs versus renewables consumption since 1990 we should now ask ourselves if we truly are prepared to wean ourselves completely of FFs and transition into a life within an energy budget made up from only renewables (refer also figure 1). In 2013 an estimated 20% of the world’s total energy consumption came from biomass, hydroelectricity, solar and wind. From 2012 to 2013 global FFs consumption grew more than what total global consumption of solar and wind was in 2013 (this according to data from BP Statistical Review 2014). It is highly likely that the Earth’s climate has been/is affected from growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) from an accelerated growth in FF consumption. That has led some to start looking at the wording for fossil fuel consumption because, and as is well known, words projects a lot of power. Some alternative references are fossil carbon (which refers to our legacy of fossil/ancient sunlight)….to “fossil f***”. So there it is in plain sight; We are likely damned if we pursue historical trajectories of FF consumption and damned if we don’t. .. “Energy is indistinguishable from magic.”

This post has been updated and expanded here with data as per 2017.

23 thoughts on “The Powers of Fossil Fuels

  1. “renewables” are an extension of the fossil fuel supply system and require a massive industrial infrastructure to provide the equipment and resources to build the devices that capture the sun or winds energy. These devices are not renewable, not sustainable without ff and certainly not green . They are simply business as usual. And once built, will there there be the energy for auxiliary equipment, the replacement and repairs, the maintenance and finally the energy to build all the objects that the electricity is wanted to run?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sunweb,
    We are very much on the same page here. Large scale wind is dependent on a complex FF infrastructure as well as rare earth metals.
    I see a lot of references to renewables as fossil fuel extenders, and for large scales I believe that to be very precise.

    Before FF, harvesting wind was used extensively as a power source, windmills, sailboats and a multitude of other usages of harvested wind. At some point in time when FF becomes little available societies will have to make use of what is available, despite their shortcomings relative to the present energy on demand system.
    So renewables will have a role in the future, but the scale of it is likely not to be as present complex systems allows. In many ways I am adhering to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle for renewables, small scale, local materials and “simple” technology for ease of operations and maintenance.


  3. Wind energy does not require rare earth metals as frequently claimed. Electricity can be generated without any magnets. The generator charging the car battery does not contain any magnets. It contains some steel and some copper. We will never run out of steel, copper is a different story. However, copper can be replaced by aluminum. The conductivity of aluminum is a little bit worse than that of copper, but that loss can be compensated by simply putting more aluminum into the wires. Aluminum is perhaps the most plentiful metal, so we will not run out of aluminum anytime soon. The key question is what percentage of the energy generated by a wind mill during its useful lifetime is spend on producing that wind mill. I do not know the precise figure as it changes with a changing technology, but I would not be surprised to learn that this percentage is less than 10%. Overall, the pessimism towards renewable energy is not justified. Modern cars are quite reliable but it took over 100 years of development for engineers to learn to design such cars. The very first car made my Daimler Benz required an engine disassembly every 1000 km. Today’s engines are
    good for at least 100,000 km before any engine work is required. Within 100 years, engineers will learn to design wind mills which will have a much better reliability and EROEI ratio than designs prevailing today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading the news article with Gunnhild Stordalen at the ONS conference just confirms that we humans/corporations are delusional. To be delusional was probably a highly effective evolutionary survival strategy (due to reduction of the stress hormone Cortisol etc) in the Pleistocene and one of our greatest strengths along with spiritualism in i surviving a scarce environment. Now in the age of abundance it has turned against us and serves as a major obstacle to realistically deal with our energy and climate situation.

    CO2-reduction solutions put forward by corporations/high status individuals are just camouflaging (I believe with good intentions since they are not evil people ) the real problems to hopefully keep business as usual going in the future without pain and sacrifice. The patient (our global economic juggernaut) is diagnosed with diabetes II and the doctor advises his patient to change from Coca Cola to Cola Zero. As the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”…


    1. Christian,
      I have for some time looked upon the economy from the viewpoints of thermodynamics or energy flows.
      Every financial transaction involves some amount of energy.
      We are just not conditioned to think that way of the economy.
      This makes money a claim on energy (magic) thus money is a derivative of resources/energy.

      We discovered and learnt to harvest the magic from a legacy of FF and likely did not fully understand the significance of its powers. We became aware of some of the consequences from using an accelerating amount of it and started to look for alternatives that came with fewer side effects.

      FF is kind of the so-called “monkey trap”, it will be hard to let go of FF due to all the “free” benefits provided by them. At the same time FF becomes increasingly harder to extract and yields less surplus energy for our economies/societies.
      Perhaps we start to sense that the benefits provided from the FF legacy will become less available and therefore now looks for alternatives that can propel BAU into the future.
      In recent years we used a growing amount of monetary debt to pull forward the consumption of harder to extract FF, it now appears to be a shrinking runway left for this flight.


      1. Rune, I highly agree with you. Fossilized carbon is indeed magic! And your connection between money/debt and energy is IMO spot on (the reason I follow your blog).

        In a broader thermodynamic perspective, especially in light of the 2nd law which states that energy spreads, I would say that our industrialization and globalization makes perfect sense. Natural complex systems accelerates the process of dissipating energy, as long as it does not destroy itself in the process.

        So far life in aggregate has been successfull despite the “frequent” occurences of mass extinctions in the past. Looking back in deep time (4 billion years), from the origin of the earth to this day and age, life has become more numerous, differentiated, more “cognitively” adept, and better at spreading energy. There is an ancient theme running and we are part of it. As a global tribe we humans have not been able to dissipate energy stably and thereby accidentily polluted the biosphere in the process. Therefore I believe it is important to try and understand our biolgical and behavioural drivers (money and energy) and see these in a thermodynamic perspective if we are going to have a chance at coming up with solutions that are both realistic and ecosystemically balanced with nature for future generations.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Nate Hagens frequently refers to the “Maximum Power Principle” which is present in nature and humans are biological creatures and we just follow our natural behavior (as you point out and what you describes is very much aligned with what I also believe/have observed).
        It is the part about solutions for the predicament we are in, which is both interesting and scary at the same time.

        Where I live no one aged lower than 80 years has any memory of harder times, in other words, our collective memory was formed during decades of economic growth, massive improvements and greater wealth creation.
        How are we prepared to deal with a different reality when this no longer becomes the theme du jour?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. We are not prepared at all. If the snake was about to bite we would react instantly, but preparing for “obscure” slowmoving predicaments (like falling EROEI and biodiversity loss etc) is not part of our inherited DNA.

        Nate Hagens is actually one of my heroes. I believe he is one of the few people (including you Rune, so keep up the good work) on this planet that actually understands all aspects of our predicament.


      4. Thanks for the vote of confidence.

        Nate and me are pretty much on the same page and we have quite different educational and professional backgrounds and had made very much the same observations on our own on different continents.

        I have 2 more posts in the pipeline which I hope to put up within a couple of weeks.
        One about the oil price, where I sense most of the “usual suspects” gets it wrong as they do not look deep enough into what makes demand possible. It also describes a little of why a declining oil price is not a good sign and likely sets us up for some unpleasant experiences in the near future.

        The other is an update about Bakken. The growth in Bakken (since my “Red Queen” series in 2012 at TOD) happened due to higher oil price and more debt.

        A preliminary “tidbit”

        With the present wellhead prices of $66/Bbl the future developments of LTO in Bakken has entered the twilight zones between profitability (return requirements), the prospects of further declines to the oil price which likely results in constraints from cash flows and shrinkage of the companies’ debt capacities.
        It is from this twilight zone the Bakken “Red Queen”, for some time outrun by a higher oil price and debt growth, will emerge and catch up.


  5. Technology developed for many thousands of years before electricity and fossil fuels were discovered.
    I am sure that development will continue even after we run out of fossil fuels. To many people in the peak oil movement are ideologically predisposed against technology partly because they know little about
    technology. As long as the sun is shining, we will have wind and we will have electricity. The future will be
    characterized by energy scarcity. But we will have electricity and everybody will have access to at least 1 KWH of electricity per day. The solution to many problems will be: Accomplish more with fewer resources. That requires lots of brain work.


    1. The future will no doubt be different. FF (primarily) allowed for energy on demand.
      FF allowed for consumption of large quantities of surplus energy and sure there is room to use less without impairing quality of life very much (may even improve it).
      Intermittent energy will reduce the society’s complexities.
      There is another aspect to FF and that is its role in food production. There are alternatives, but will these allow for food production on the scale seen now?


      1. Rune: I am in complete agreement with what you said. Regarding food production, the only major change will be that many more people will be involved in farming and food production. Before the fossil fuel age, the majority of people were in agriculture. That is also the way of the future. The oil age gave the majority of people the one time opportunity to do something else in life than farming. Without FF, we will definitely produce less food, so the world population will have to adjust. Most people today work in services. The future service sector of the economy will be related to food production. The obesity phenomenon is an indication that we partly consume to much food. So lower food production could be also healthy. Too much food is unhealthy. Longevity of the human body is increased by lowering food intake to a certain point.

        By the way, while visiting a museum on a recent trip to Europe, I realized that a few hundred years ago, most people had a much smaller body size than today. So the overproduction of food led within a relatively short time to a larger body size. In the future, people may be smaller again.


      2. Robert, thanks for your comments.
        A paper I just read described that 80% of the nitrogen and 50% of the protein in our bodies comes via fertilizers (Haber-Bosch process based upon natural gas), and there are alternatives like the Birkeland-Eyde process based on electricity.
        In other words, our bodies are very much made up from hydrocarbons.

        Just a thought about your comment on most people going back to agriculture. What kind of social arrangements would that entail?


      3. Rune, already in 1930, during the great depression, the German economist Wilhelm Roepkeöpke , advised that everybody should have at least two jobs, one of them in food production. Roepke correctly anticipated times, where full emplyment and full time jobs may not be sustainable long term. In order for people to survive such an economic system, his advice was that people develop many different set of skills. Immediately after WWII, when I grew up, it was common that most people maintained a small garden where they produced fresh produce, tomatos, flowers even potatos, cucumbers etc. Nobody thought at that time, that all of our food would come from a huge supermarket and that we would have no own food in storage at home. In an energy starved world, we can not waste energy on food transportation which means that most of the food will be produced locally. That means that more people will be needed in food production. Today food is basically a commodity which is produced cheaply. In fact, that is the only aspect which matters. The cheaper the better. I believe that will change in the future. Food will get expensive (in terms of the percentage of wages spend on food) and for that reason, the work of a farmer will be respectable again as it used to be in the past. I can imagine a future where the work of a farmer enjoys more respect than the work of a technician working on old machines (cars, computers etc) or the work of an office worker. Health is a great value as medical services will always be expensive. The only way to stay healthy in a cheap way is to eat better quality food. For that we need high quality farmers. There is an incredible amount of work to be done in this area. We know very little about nutrition and health issues.


      4. Robert, thanks for the link on Roepke.
        I believe developing several skill sets makes one more resilient.
        Post WW II in Norway building/house lots included gardens of some size to allow for the household to grow some of their vegetables, fruit trees, berries etc. thus household became a partially self supported. Growing some of one’s own food requires some skill sets to be developed. It takes time to develop skill sets. Mechanized agriculture in many ways outcompeted these concepts (of growing some of one’s own food).
        I do think that there will be FF around for a long time to fuel mechanized agriculture, but there could be other incidents that could interrupt food supplies from other corners of the world.
        Disrespect for farmers is in my opinion misplaced.


      5. The paper from your comment above: “A paper I just read described that 80% of the nitrogen and 50% of the protein in our bodies comes via fertilizers”


  6. Hi Rune,

    I have spent some time trying to make sense of the figures you presented but it is not easy. Broad numbers, in 2013 about 160 TWh of electricity (about 1% of the world supply) where generated by PV. Using a volume factor of 1.7 MWh/boe and a conversion factor of 1/3 from primary to deliverable energy I get somewhere close to 100 Mtoe for PV alone in 2013. In your graphs the whole solar power section is only about 20 Mtoe, this is far too low.

    Similar problems with wind power, in 2013 the electricity generated by this technology equated to some 400 Mtoe, whereas in your charts only one third of this value shows. Is the conversion to primary energy missing?



    1. Hello Luis and thanks.
      I used the data from BP Statistical Review 2014.
      BP suggests the following conversions;
      One tonne of oil equivalent equals approximately: 12 MWh electricity.
      BP SR 2014 lists world consumption for 2013 of solar at around 125 TWh and 28.2 Mtoe.
      BP SR 2014 lists world consumption for 2013 of solar at around 628 TWh and 142.2 Mtoe.
      (I have not checked if there has been revisions to those numbers since I DL my copy back in June)
      In addition BP describes
      One million tonnes of oil or oil equivalent produces about 4400 gigawatt-hours (=4.4 terawatt hours) of electricity in a modern power station. (1 toe approximates 4.4 MWh)


      1. I stopped using BP’s Statistical Review some years ago, having realised how unreliable their data is.

        For instance, the contribution of solar thermal alone is well over 200 TWh/a (equivalent to almost 400 Mboe). The 125 TWh put forth by BP is too low for either PV or thermal when accounted on their own, and almost an order of magnitude below the total energy harnessed from the sun in its various forms.

        In the case of “oil” and “gas” BP inflates the numbers with products of non fossil origin. You will find this explained in the fine print, there is a reason why they not use the word “petroleum”.

        All in all, the gap from renewable energy to fossil fuels is considerably narrower than what BP tries to picture. But naturally, volume is just one aspect of this discussion, and perhaps not the most important.


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