Wind energy and fossil energy: can they co-exist?

Wind energy and fossil energy – This is a long blog. But richly informative if you want to know more about the debates on global warming, fossil energy, and renewables. It’s also based on data and facts (real facts). I have tried to strike a balanced approach. This blog is written for the layman, as well as the expert. The write up finishes with Texas. The largest oil and wind-energy producer in the USA.

• The shale revolution.
• Dependence on foreign energy.
• Manufacturing renaissance.
• Prolonged use of fossil fuels.
• Urgency of global warming.
• Greenhouse gas emissions – main sources.
• Reducing greenhouse gases.
• Renewables and fossil fuels in Texas.

As Dr. John Korstad teaches in his Sustainability class at Oral Roberts University, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Meaning, you will need to keep energy from oil and natural gas around while you are changing over to renewable energy. Example, wind and solar. But can the two sources of energy co-exist in a polarized political climate like exists in the USA?

The following, which outlines some of the issues, is a quote from a book review called The Green and The Black, by Gary Sernovitz. The Black represents oil, while the Green reflects renewables as espoused by environmentalists.

Fracking was just one part of a shale revolution that shocked our assumptions about fueling America’s future. The revolution has transformed the world with consequences for the oil industry, investors, environmentalists, political leaders. Also, anyone who lives in areas shaped by the shales, uses fossil fuels, or cares about the climate. In short, everyone. Thanks to American engineers’ oilfield innovations, the US is leading the world in reducing carbon emissions. This has sparked a potential manufacturing renaissance, and may soon eliminate its dependence on foreign energy. Once again, the largest oil and gas producer in the world is the USA. They have altered its balance of power with Russia and the Middle East.

Yet the shale revolution has also caused local disruptions and pollution. It has prolonged the world’s use of fossil fuels. Is there any way to reconcile the costs with the benefits of fracking? To do so, we must start by understanding fracking and the shale revolution in their totality. To capture the economic, political, and environmental prizes. To do this, we need to adopt a balanced, informed perspective. We need to take the green with the black. Where we go from there is up to us.

Graph of net oil imports as percent of products supplied.

Since the start of shale oil boom near 2005, oil imports have been reduced from 55% to 20% in only 10 years. See graph below. Since the US net imports from OPEC, etc, are now 4.9 million barrels per day at a cost of roughly $250 million per day, the cost must have been over $500 million per day 10 years ago. In 2017 this tremendous savings of around $250 million per day is due entirely to shale oil produced in the US.

Darren Woods said his company, Exxon-Mobil, is committed to producing oil and gas while helping to minimize the industry’s impact on the environment. The following comments are taken from this article.

“I want to challenge the assumption made by many that a growing economy and a cleaner environment are mutually exclusive. That as we step forward in developing more oil and natural gas. Our environment—including our climate—must step back,” said Woods.
Several company projects were listed, ones that Woods emphasized are aimed at reducing emissions and increasing energy efficiency. For example, making biofuels from agricultural waste and algae. He also noted that Exxon-Mobil has a stake in about 25% of the world’s carbon-capture-and-sequestration capacity. Also that the company plans to invest more in this area.

New ExxonMobil CEO, Darren Woods.

Last year, the company also announced that it has partnered with technology developers to find out whether carbon fuel cells can be used to efficiently capture carbon dioxide on a large scale. Woods said that if this project can be used to capture emissions from power plants then it may bring about “a future in which hydrocarbon use and de-carbonization go hand in hand.”

He celebrated the fact that hydraulic fracturing has helped make the US a top producer of oil and gas in the world. But, he said the technology has also brought about a new era of investing for downstream and manufacturing businesses in the US.

Through proximity of US shale fields to its Gulf of Mexico refining base, Exxon-Mobil has already begun expanding these facilities and will continue until 2022 to a tune of $20 billion. In all, there are 11 projects along the US Gulf coast that ExxonMobil expects will create 45,000 jobs. Presumably plastics manufacturing, a huge enterprise in the US, are included in these developments. Think how much plastic-ware you use in the kitchen.

Projections by EIA of future worldwide usage of oil and natural gas versus coal versus renewables (wind and solar) versus nuclear are displayed in the figure. While natural gas overtakes coal in about 2030 (because it’s cheaper and burns cleaner), renewables never catch up to oil and gas.

Projections by EIA of future worldwide usage of fossil fuels versus renewables.

This graph presumably is based on projected usages by (1) transport (aircraft and ground), (2) industry (e.g. electric generating stations), and (3) domestic appliances (e.g. home lighting and heating) in countries across the world. A conclusion is if renewables are ever going to catch up to fossil fuels, then something has to change and it would have to be a big change. There is legitimate urgency here, as discussed in the next section.

Global warming is caused by an increase in (mainly) CO2 in the atmosphere. The atmosphere with its CO2 acts like a glass greenhouse roof does for growing plants. The sunlight and heat come in through the glass, but the heat can’t get out so easily and causes the temperature to rise inside the greenhouse.

There have been geological cycles of global warming over the past million years. The figure reveals four global warming events over the past 400,000 years, each associated with an increase of CO2 concentration in parts per million (ppm). So these natural global warming events occur about once every 100,000 years. During these cycles the CO2 concentration ranges between 180 and 280 ppm. For a more detailed summary of global warming written by two old friends of mine in Australia, click here for my earlier blog.

Plot of CO2 concentration (top panel) and global temperature highs (lower panel) over past 400,000 years (click to enlarge or to source then back-arrow to return to writeup).

Numbers to compare last geological temperature warming plus CO2 concentration in the atmosphere versus present global warming (click to enlarge or to source then back-arrow to return to writeup).

This historical perspective helps us to understand the seriousness of our present global warming trend. In contrast to the geological cycles, the current global warming event is only about 100 years old and the CO2 has risen to about 400 ppm. That is higher than all the four previous geological cycles which each lasted about 100,000 years. See the next table of numbers. Something else must be going on, and yes it’s the man-made industrial revolution. Which is  where the accelerated burning of fossil fuels has pushed up the CO2 concentration to a record high. This past 100 years is called the Anthropocene age, meaning man-influenced.

The seriousness is amplified because the current 400 ppm is higher than its been in the past 400,000 years. We are pushing the earth where it has not gone in almost half a million years!

Another telling graph is shown in the next figure (red and blue image), where the recent rise in global temperature is overlaid on the measured CO2 concentration. The conclusion is that the global temperature clearly correlates with CO2 concentration. And, the recent rise in temperature is much too fast to be explained by natural geological cycles.


CO2 concentration superimposed on global temperature rise. The correlation after 1980 is particularly striking. Click to enlarge or to source, then back-arrow to return to writeup.

The paragraphs in this section are taken from here.

There are both natural and human sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Natural sources include decomposition, ocean release, respiration and volcanoes. Human sources come from activities like cement production, deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.

42.8 percent of all naturally produced CO2 emissions come from ocean-atmosphere exchange. Other important natural CO2 sources include plant and animal respiration (28.6%) as well as soil respiration and decomposition (28.6%). A minor amount is also created by volcanic eruptions (0.03%).

87% of all human CO2 emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil. Other sources include deforestation (9%), and industrial processes such as cement manufacturing (4%).

Human sources of CO2 are much smaller than natural sources but they upset the balance in the carbon cycle that existed before the Industrial Revolution (which started less than 150 years ago). The amount of CO2 produced by natural sources is normally completely offset by natural carbon sinks and has been for thousands of years.

Before the influence of humans, CO2 levels were quite steady because of this natural balance. Since the Industrial Revolution, human sources of CO2 emissions have been growing. Activities such as the burning of fossil fuels as well as deforestation are the primary cause of the increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

In the US, rapid changeovers have occurred at electrical-generators (power plants). Changeovers from burning coal to burning natural gas. This is partly because natural gas is cheaper than coal, due to extra supply from shale gas successes since 2003. A huge benefit of this is that greenhouse gases emitted by burning natural gas are only about one half those from burning coal. So the increased shale gas supply has contributed importantly to the reduction of greenhouse gases. This helps the US reach it’s goal from the Paris accords on climate change, signed in 2016 by over 100 countries.

Methane emissions plummet the past several years (click to enlarge or to source, then back-arrow to return to writeup).

However, this advantage is somewhat diminished by the leakage of natural gas (mostly methane) from wellheads and pipelines. Especially, since for the same volume, methane has 20 times the greenhouse warming effect that CO2 has. In US gas fields, as shown in the next figure, methane emissions are steadily decreasing as producers continue to plug gas leaks. The gas leaks in a wellhead or pipeline are like water leaks in a garden hose. Small but can be hard to fix (typical gas leakage is now only 1-2% of that produced).

The reduction in methane (and equivalent CO2) emission (see plot) also helps the US reach its goal from the Paris accords. The remarkable thing is that this reduction occurs while natural gas production soared during the shale gas revolution. But the vertical scale on the left of the figure seems to indicate the oil and gas industry still has a way to go.

The following is adapted from National Public Radio.
Texas produces the most oil and gas of any state in the USA. If Texas were a country, it would be the sixth largest oil and gas producer in the world.

Georgetown, Texas, is a conservative town in a conservative state. So it may come as something of a surprise that it’s one of the first cities in America to be entirely powered by renewable energy.

Texas is by far the No. 1 producer of wind energy in the United States. It produces more wind energy than the next three states combined. In fact, if it were its own country, Texas would be the fourth-largest largest wind-producing country in the world by the end of 2017.

Early morning contrails over windmill country east of Amarillo, Texas.

One observer says former Texas Governor Rick Perry deserves the credit: “I truly believe he was a visionary.” Today, Rick Perry is the head of the US Department of Energy. At his swearing-in last week, Perry described what President Trump told him when he offered him the job: “I want you to do for American energy what you did for Texas.”

Already, the fastest-growing job in the U.S. is wind turbine technician. Though the absolute numbers are small — 4,400 in 2014. It’s growing at more than double the pace of the next closest profession. Demand is high. Renewable energy companies are hiring students, sometimes before they even finish the program. The salaries are good: median pay in 2015 was about $50,000.

In policy circles, the debate surrounding renewable energy and fossil fuels often pits them against one another. Liberals are supposed to support solar and wind; conservatives are supposed to support oil and gas. In Texas, the attitude is “all of the above.”

“Any time there’s an opportunity to put a little extra income in people’s pockets, we’re all for it,” says a man who owns a print shop in Sweetwater, Texas. His relatives have been ranchers in the area for generations. The income derived from leasing a single turbine varies. But a former mayor says $10,000 per turbine per year is a good estimate. “For a ranching family to have the opportunity to produce oil and gas or the opportunity to have a wind turbine or a solar farm, it may well mean that another generation can remain on the land,” one man says.

Inside of a windmill tower: for a windmill technician this can be freezing in Texas winter but hot and sweaty in summer. Click on image to enlarge or to source.

How did Governor Rick Perry pull this off? He signed into law a 2005 bill to build transmission lines connecting the windy plains to population centers like Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. And Perry made every Texas citizen pay for it in their energy bills. Since the Texas grid is self-contained, wind energy doesn’t cross state lines. It isn’t subject to as many federal regulations.

Perry, as US energy secretary, faces challenges at the national level that will make it much harder for him to expand what he did in Texas. But if he does, it would be almost as surprising as what happened in his home state. A red-state, conservative guy from oil country managed to help build one of the biggest renewable energy systems in the world.

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The Gray Nomad
Think well, and help someone to hope.

Simply reminding people of how bad things are and what you lost, nobody’s moved by that. People are moved by the sense of possibility, a sense of hope that can be realized with small efforts. Small and sustained efforts. [Cornell William Brooks]

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7 years ago

Thanks for the article. We have tension in Australia with respect to wind farms arising from:

• bad publicity from so-called health effects of low frequency noise
• visual impact of wind turbines
• intermittent generation capability coupled with inadequate spinning reserve (ie conventional power stations to take up the slack when the wind stops)
• The Murdoch press tends to promote use of fossil fuels and discourages open discussion on climate change

While many think the problems arise because of use of renewable energy, in reality they are the result of poor policy and a flawed national energy market which does not pay for standby systems. It is interesting to compare energy with water, where some $15b was spent in the period 2004-2012 to build desalination plants and water recycling facilities which provide significant reserve capacity for the next drought. But the water policy was the direct result of a crisis (very severe drought). We appear to be heading for an energy crisis now, but somewhat of our own making.

John Cameron
John Cameron
7 years ago

Thanks, Ian, for addressing this very important topic of climate change. Your EIA figure showing fossil fuel consumption continuing to increase with renewables never catching up is very alarming, especially since we are now above the 400 ppm CO2 point and will thus cross the 450 ppm point in a few decades. Some folks think at this point it will not be possible for humans to reverse the increase in greenhouse gases, and naturally released CH4 as well as CO2 will increase. I hope that with the world’s rapidly developing technologies, that other sources of “clean” energy and less expensive nenewable energy processes will enable us to reduce our use of fossil fuels before the irreversible point is reached.

7 years ago

Thanks for your blog. There was good material there but also much that I disagreed with! Yesterday I saw a program on the ABC on the challenges facing the world due to climate change. Much of the concern in the US is from the Pentagon. They see major problems in a world where resources are limited and mass immigration and social unrest occurs.

Climate change is the greatest threat to the world at present, I firmly believe. Discussions about using some gas and some renewables is just not good enough. We need to stop CO2 emissions now else we face a dismal future. Despite the overwhelming majority of scientists stating this, there are many people with their heads in the sand refusing to face the issue.

Have you read Tony Seba’s book ‘Green Disruption’. If you can’t get it just Google Tony Seba’s talk in March 2016. He makes a convincing argument that nuclear, oil, coal and gas will all be obsolete by 2030 just because they will be too expensive. However there are two groups fighting against this: the fossil fuel companies and the government. This is very true in Australia.

For a look at what is happening in Australia and what could happen in the US subscribe to Reneweconomy. I’m not sure how easy it is to get this over there. I will try to attach the latest issue I got today.

7 years ago

Hi Ian,
Excellent job on a balanced article! It’s not an “either/or” mentality but an “and/both” one that works best. I am proud of American ingenuity and the oil/gas industry for reinventing themselves once again. There will always be skeptics, but this industry is extremely innovative. It was terrible to be so dependent on the Middle East for oil, and now we are past that and have more options. Thank you for your article!

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