Are Renewable Energies Pushing Back Fossil Fuels?

Renewable energies are part of the energy transition as the preferred alternative to fossil fuels. Critics claim that the growth of renewable energy does not allow any decline in the use of gas, oil and especially coal. They denounce support for new sectors such as wind power and photovoltaic.

In reality, there are two conditions for this substitution between fossil and renewable energies. The first is that renewables grow fast enough. This is the case today at the global level. But this movement, which is very recent and most evident in electricity, cannot produce immediate effects on the scale of the entire energy system. It will take a few years for renewables, thanks to the level of deployment they can claim, to have the capacity to transform the global energy balance.

The other condition, independent of the energy source, is to prevent global demand from growing faster than renewable growth. The control of consumption must, therefore, progress further to allow renewables, which are part of the effort, to make this transformation.

The rise of renewable energies, on which all observers agree, would it be a complete waste? For some actors, the support they receive is highly questionable, particularly about nuclear power, with which they would be competing to produce carbon-free energy. One of their main arguments is that the impact of renewable energy growth on the evolution of fossil fuels is negligible.

For example, according to BP 1 annual global energy balances, fossil fuel primary energy consumption increased much faster than renewable energy use between 2000 and 2014.

The Acceleration Of Fossil Energies

To analyze current trends, we must start by putting them into perspective. The reasoning proposed to disqualify the contribution of renewable energies is based on the idea that it constitutes the central evolution of the energy system since the beginning of the 2000s, and that this growth should have already led for several years to significant changes in the mix global energy.

There are two things in particular. First, the consumption of fossil fuels, all resources combined, accelerated: driven by steady growth in global energy demand, its growth was almost twice as strong in the second period than in the first one. The second observation is that the balance between fossil fuels has changed significantly. For example, coal, which was thought to be declining at the end of the last century, accounted for only 14% of the increase in fossil fuels between 1985 and 2000. But, in particular, due to the development of its use in emerging countries, it accounted for 39% of the increase in fossil fuels between 2000 and 2015. In absolute terms, growth was 4.8 times faster in the second period than in the first. At the scale of the world energy system, the most striking fact of the period 2000-2015 is therefore not the development of renewable energies but a second acceleration: that of energy consumption in general, and that of coal in particular.