Black gold is no green solution

Sustainable Fossil Fuels
January 19, 2007

A vigorous argument for the continued use of fossil fuels is refreshing, however John Whitelegg is unconvinced that they will help build a better, cleaner world

This is a book with a mission. The author has one overriding objective - to demonstrate that fossil fuels are a vital part of the sustainable energy menu and that they have a future that stretches to the end of this century and beyond. He argues this point with passion and with much repetition, and he may well be correct. Whatever the merits of the pro-fossil fuel argument, it is refreshing and enjoyable to see a clearly marked-out position put forward with so much vigour and eloquence. This makes a welcome change from the usual anodyne texts that studiously avoid taking a stance and rely instead on factual overload and artificial balance.

Mark Jaccard never hides his purpose. He writes: "My evaluation of the primary energy alternatives leads me to predict that fossil fuels will not be abandoned and indeed will sustain their dominant role through this century and perhaps well beyond."

The range of information and evidence presented in support of this central message is impressive, but Jaccard avoids placing the case for fossil fuels in a simple, robust evaluation of the alternatives together with a comprehensive list of costs and benefits. There is information on costs and subsidies, and this is fascinating. Towards the end of the book, he reminds us of the scale of subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear electricity production: "Global subsidies of this nature were estimated to be $150 billion (£76 billion) per year in the 1990s."

Jaccard quite rightly suggests that these subsidies should be reduced and eliminated, but he never pulls the information together in a clear table to show us just what we are committing by way of subsidies for the main energy paths we might follow in the future (nuclear, fossil, renewable). Equally, he pays scant attention to demand management and the degree to which we can reduce energy demand through intelligent product design, attention to buildings, reducing material intensity (using less materials) and reducing transport intensity (moving things shorter distances than we do now). He is aware of these strands in discussions of energy, but they are not woven together. The absence of a serious look at transport is especially worrying in a book on fossil fuels and energy because transport is still oil-dominated.

Sadly, the author falls into the usual trap of associating cars with social progress when he ventures that automobiles are associated with large benefits. He does not mention the 3,000-plus people killed every year on the roads in the UK and the strong association between cars, inefficient transport and suburbanisation. An average car weighs 1 tonne, carries a single passenger weighing 75kgs, produces 240g of carbon dioxide per km and costs the average UKmotorist about £4,000 a year to run. This is not a good application of physics, logic and thermodynamics.

Jaccard declares that transport is "a key end use where change is required"

and goes on to discuss the potential of hydrogen fuel cells, "which could become important by the middle of the century". He makes no attempt to discuss the wide-ranging transport experiences that show the potential for walking and cycling (for example, more than one third of trips in Copenhagen) or the potential of public transport demonstrated by high rates of modal share in Zurich and Vienna. Globally, there are impressive success stories in shifting people away from the car and towards alternatives, and there is a growing realisation that we can have easily accessible cities with a high density of the things we need at lower levels of kilometres travelled. This is also a metaphor for the energy debate, which does not come through well in this book. Fundamentally, we do not need lots of electricity from fossil fuels, but we do need well-designed systems that can heat our homes and power equipment at low levels of energy demand.

At the core of the energy debate are Jaccard's estimates of future energy costs. He presents a range of costs in US cents per kilowatt hour, which shows that coal and natural gas are at the lower end (5-7 cents/ kWh), wind and biomass slightly higher (6-8 cents/kWh) and photovoltaics above that (15-20 cents/kWh). These cost estimates are not the same as subsidy estimates, and they do not include the costs associated with nuclear power plant and industrial plant decommissioning. This is a false comparison that does not do justice to the case for fossil fuels.

Also missing from the discussion is a robust analysis of the costs and penalties of large-scale power production and distribution. This is the "elephant in the corner" of any large-scale power plant. If we organise our electricity production around large-scale coal, oil and gas-fired power stations, we throw away a large percentage of the energy we could potentially harness. The environmentalist and energy consultant Amory Lovins estimates that for every 100 units of energy input into a large power station, we get 9.5 units of output, with 70 per cent of the losses taking place at the power plant (cooling towers) and the remainder in distribution. This serious loss points to the need for a discussion that is nothing to do with fossil fuels but everything to do with intelligent design, eliminating losses, "de-gridding the grid" and replacing a 19th-century industrial model (the large power station) with a 21st-century model based on distributed systems. In this 21st-century model, the home becomes a "power station" (employing micro-wind turbines, photovoltaic cells, micro-combined heat and power and the like), and national or international grids are replaced by regional ones. This also takes place at the same time as homes, schools, offices and shops are re-engineered to need less energy. This vision has far more resonance with the principles of sustainability than Jaccard's vision of clean fossil-fuel power stations that lose 70 per cent of their energy at source.

The author's bullish statements about nuclear power are also open to challenge: "Nuclear power produces clean electricity while emitting no local air pollutants, no regional acid emission and no greenhouse gases."

This glosses over the nuclear fuel cycle, Sellafield, radiological pollution of the Irish Sea and estuaries on the west coast of the UK and the debate about childhood leukaemia. It glosses over the risk of proliferation of nuclear material and the rather silly movement of trains with spent fuel that trundle through London and then on through other cities with hundreds of thousands of residents as they head to Sellafield.

It also glosses over the considerable cost of decommissioning.

The book is a welcome addition to the energy debate, but it fails to rise above its self-appointed task of creating a future for fossil fuels and linking this with the definition of sustainability. The author may well be right about a longer-lived future for fossil fuels than many commentators on energy, climate change and sustainability would be comfortable with - but he is wrong about the links with sustainability. Sustainability requires us all to think outside the box and to produce new relationships and responsibilities in the drive to create a safer, cleaner, happier world. A fossil fuel-based future does not do that because it perpetuates an outmoded and inefficient model of mobility (the car) and of electricity production (the power station located far from where electricity is used).

Sustainability requires a vision of a distributed system and one that can harness behavioural change. We need consumers of all forms of energy to become intelligent users and producers of energy so that they can see the value of reduction and the value of producing electricity to sell back to the grid. A fossil-fuel future cannot do this, and its vision is far too narrow. A sustainable energy future would end the division between producer and consumer, maximise the availability of useful energy where it is used and reward users financially for the electricity they produce at home, in the workplace or in manufacturing. When this goes hand in hand with reducing materials intensity, transport intensity and energy intensity (getting more for less), we will have succeeded. In the meantime, continuing to rely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy and their industrial production systems holds us back and blocks progress.

Professor John Whitelegg, Stockholm Environment Institute, York University.

Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy

Author - Mark Jaccard
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 381
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 521 86179 9 and 67979 6

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments