Why haven’t we turned our backs on hydrocarbons yet?

An interesting interview with Simon Pirani was published on 19 December by Pro-Ved, the Russian-language economic news website. It is about issues raised in his book Burning Up: a Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, to be published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Simon Pirani is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies. He writes about energy, politics and the economy of the former Soviet Union as a journalist.

In reality, two things are happening at the same time: electricity generation from renewables is rising rapidly, but fossil fuel use is also rising, from a much larger base.

The cost of generating electricity from renewable sources – mainly, wind and solar power – is falling. Electricity from these sources is gaining a share of the market in a number of countries, especially in Europe. In a few countries – Denmark, Germany and Spain in particular – renewables now make up a significant share of electricity generation (in recent years, about a half in Denmark, and one-fifth in Germany and Spain). As you say, the Chinese government has decided to invest in renewable technologies, and so this small business is bound to keep growing. Globally, investment in renewables was running at $250-300 billion per year in 2011-2015, compared to $100-130 billion in electricity generation from fossil fuels.

That’s all the good news. The bad news is that fossil fuels have the advantage of being the dominant incumbent source of electricity generation. Between 1990 and 2015, renewables’ share of electricity generation rose from 1% to 5% – but fossil fuels’ share rose from 63% to 68%. (The shares from hydro power and nuclear power both fell slightly.) So although renewable electricity generation has really soared, growing five times over in that 15-year period, it remains confined to small pockets of the global electricity business as a whole.

Read the full interview here.