We have just posted a feature story by Avilash Roul entitled “India’s Solar Power” on our home page, where the reader will find an in-depth survey of the current state of solar power in India and the efforts of India’s government to develop solar power.
In our introduction to that story, we point out the dauntingly small base from which non-hydro, non-nuclear, non-combustible renewables have to climb. In the world in 2006, for example, according to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuel accounts for 80.3% of the world’s energy production – oil (34.3%), coal (25.1%), and gas (20.9%). Add to this “combustible renewables,” mostly wood (10.6%), and you have 90.9% of the world’s energy coming from combustion. Add to that nuclear power (6.5%), and hydro-electric power (2.2%), and you have accounted for 99.5% of the world’s energy. Of the remaining one-half of one percent, 80% of that is, surprisingly, geothermal power, with the final 20%, one tenth of one percent, roughly split between solar and wind power.
How does the world’s energy mix compare to India’s energy mix? It is surprising how difficult it is to find this information – but from the U.S. Energy Information Administration we located 2001 statistics for India: Coal (50.9%), oil (34.4%), gas (6.5%) – bringing fossil fuel up to 91.8% of all energy produced. Add to that India’s hydro-electric power (6.3%), and nuclear power (1.7%), and you have accounted for 99.8% of India’s energy. In 2001, India’s geothermal, wind and solar power, all together only amounted to two-tenths of one percent. Conspicuously missing is a percentage for “combustible renewables” probably because the EIA considers those to be off-market, off-grid activities. Clearly these figures could be more comprehensive, and have changed in the past few years, so if anyone can point us to a reputable, up-to-date source for this data, please let us know…
No matter what the latest figures may be, however, there are two things that are clear: (1) If a country like India, with over 1.0 billion citizens, is going to continue to experience economic growth at a percentage rate in the high single-digits, their energy production will need to increase, even if efficiencies are gained. (2) CO2 emissions in the world will not be significantly reduced if economies such as India’s and China’s, and others, continue to grow as they have been to-date.
Energy from combustion provides the overwhelming percentage of all energy production, and that will take at least a few decades to change. Subjecting the CO2 produced from energy combustion to sequestration may sound good, but will cost too much and is completely unproven – there could be awful side effects to trying to process all this CO2. Better for now to clean out the dangerous particulates and pollutants out of fossil fuels, something that is affordable, and look to other ways to address climate change – possibly by taking another look at land use which is grossly under-emphasized in popular climate models. From this perspective, for example, biofuel could well be the worst thing that has ever happened to the earth’s climate – as literally millions of square kilometers are wiped out to grow it – and aquifers are drained away to water these crops. Perhaps instead of trying, above all else, to stop burning fossil fuel, we would be better off putting rainforests back where biofuel plantations stand. Read “Biofuel or Biohazard” for commentary and links on this important topic – something environmentalists are just beginning to grasp.
Against these realities, the greatest source for optimism could be the rapid progress that solar thermal and photovoltaic technologies have made. They are truly on the verge of competing with conventional energy. Given the primary raw material required to produce photovoltaics is electricity, which they themselves produce, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the photovoltaic sector will grow faster than the wildest dreams of their proponants. But they have a long, long road to travel before they truly begin to replace fossil fuel.