A study from the University of Oregon and published in the journal 'Nature Climate Change' is challenging conventional thinking that renewable energy sources may one day replace fossil fuels.
Sociologist Richard York studied the use of electricity from fossil fuels and alternative sources in 130 countries during the past half century. He discovered that rather than replacing fossil fuels, the alternative energy sources barely outpaced rising demand in the past 50 years.
The assumption of many in the alternative energy and climate change field, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil fuel sources takes the place of one unit of energy supplied by fossil fuel sources.
York shows that the average pattern across most nations of the world over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use. And the study shows that focusing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by alternative sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.
York cites the 'complexity of economic systems and human behaviour' as the reason. As more alternative energy supply came on-line, energy demand continued to rise. He cites the example of nuclear power.
Thirty to 40 years ago, nuclear power plants were built to provide a clean, cheap renewable electricity source. However, fossil fuel use continued to grow at the same pace. York argues the same may happen as alternative energy technology matures and more systems are brought on-line.
'I'm not saying that, in principle, we can't have displacement with these new technologies, but it is interesting that so far it has not happened,' says York.
'One reason the results seem surprising is that we, as societies, tend to see demand as an exogenous thing that generates supply, but supply also generates demand. Generating electricity creates the potential to use that energy, so creating new energy technologies often leads to yet more energy consumption.'
York believes that alternative energy sources could someday replace fossil fuels, but it will take decades and a change in political and economic factors. He says alternative energy sources are already replacing fossil fuels, albeit on a very small scale.
The problem is there has not been widespread deployment of alternative energy sources. Wind and solar only constitute less than four percent of total electricity production worldwide. The study indicates that if the same pattern of energy use continues for the next few decades, it will require a massive investment and implementation of alternative energy sources to have any significant impact on fossil fuel use.
York also argues that simply building and installing more alternative energy sources is not the answer. He says society needs to be actively engaged in reducing their fossil fuel use.
This issue was recently addressed in the 'West Coast Clean Economy' report prepared by GLOBE Advisors and the Center for Climate Strategies. 'Full costing of carbon is an essential element in strengthening the clean economy,' while '...distortions of the energy marketplace that have artificially lowered the true costs of fossil fuels serve as disincentives to the deployment of renewable and clean energy technologies.'
The report also states that clean energy does have the ability to reshape global energy market, but 'current energy costing structures often do not take into account the high costs of negative externalities such as GHG emissions, air and water pollution, and ecosystem destruction.' This distorts the energy marketplace and creates a disparity between clean and conventional energy sources.