Times of Oman
Dec 02, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 04:08 AM GMT
‘Debunking’ myths of sustainable energy
December 22, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Feasible application for solar and wind technologies is electricity generation rather than transportation, which is likely to remain dominated by oil

The term 'sustainable energy' has become a 'buzzword' and a 'catchphrase' that is widely used by people who understand its meaning, but do not know what transiting to a sustainable energy future really entails. This is perhaps not surprising given the very common myths and fallacies surrounding the sustainability agenda.

The first myth is the claim that "We need to use renewable energy technologies because oil is running out". Yes, it is true that oil is a finite source that could run out one day, but the reality is that such a day is very distant in the future and the world should not wait until this day comes to switch to other resources. Rather, this transition will happen, albeit gradually, well before that day. With this in mind, Sheikh Yamani the Saudi Arabian oil minister during the 1970s put it quite elegantly "Just as the Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, the Oil Age will not end for lack of oil". This is true because the oil age, at least for some applications, will end only when cheaper energy sources are found.

Profitable business
In other words, we should be concerned with 'the end of cheap oil' rather than 'absolutely running out of oil'. It is well known that as time passes, irrespective of demand factors, the price of oil is likely to increase because it becomes harder to extract, especially when bearing in mind that the world has already passed the global peak of oil production.

All of these factors add to the price of oil (which has witnessed a 5-fold increase over the past decade) and as long as oil prices remain high, the viability of other energy sources (including nuclear power) will be entertained. For example, it is only at the current level of oil prices that oil sands (and other unconventional sources of energy) become a profitable business.

However, it is not quite as simple as this; many commentators would argue that oil pricing is more about politics, greed and speculation than a question of availability of supply. We also need to remember that although economics are important, other issues such as technical and environmental factors have a major role to play in deciding which energy source to pursue. 

This takes us to the second common myth which is that "Renewable energy has the potential to replace the need for oil altogether". I am a big fan of solar and wind power, but even I would not dare to imagine that they will replace the need for oil completely. We need to remember that the most feasible application for solar and wind technologies is electricity generation rather than transportation, which is likely to remain dominated by oil for the foreseeable future. What people also tend to forget is that we use oil for a lot of things, not just to generate electricity or fuel our cars.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of all goods in the shops involve the use of oil in one way or another. We need to recognise that using solar and wind power will never replace the need for oil altogether. It can make our oil reserves last longer and hence, instead of burning it, we should maximise its use for other useful and added-value applications such as petrochemicals and plastic manufacturing.

Renewable electricity

If we consider the application of electricity generation, here comes a third myth: "100 per cent renewable electricity is a foreseeable reality". Some people think that all that stops us from achieving this is the high cost. They forget about technical hurdles and difficulties that prevent them from achieving this ambitious dream. Leaving aside the often overlooked massive transmission and distribution requirements needed to accommodate large-scale contributions from renewables, the technical issue of intermittency is yet to be solved. Let's face it: you cannot rely on solar and wind power during a windless night.

Even if you are willing to put up with the inconvenience of your computer or TV cutting in and out, it will damage the equipment. You cannot, t

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