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To reduce carbon footprint, we must improve energy efficiency

There are risks to waiting for absolute and definitive answers on climate change. Equally counterproductive are calls to divest from fossil fuels immediately. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are still indispensable. Yet, we could significantly reduce harmful emissions without curbing global growth by increasing energy efficiency. However, this requires accepting certain hard facts about energy and adapting to the constraints.

Alternative energies might offer some answers but are not yet stand-alone sustainable solutions. Because of their intermittent, for the sun and the wind to permanently and reliably replace fossil fuels we would have to significantly multiply their capacity and link them in an extensive energy grid. Unfortunately, such an infrastructure would reduce the efficiency of our power generation.

The sun and the wind are free and solar panels are getting cheaper, but these energy sources are ill-suited to respond to peaks in demand and their integration into existing power grids is challenging. For example, during peak hours or when the wind or the sun are in short supply, coal or nuclear plants are often used as backups. However, although coal power-plant outputs can be somewhat modulated, neither has the flexibility to be stopped and restarted according to demand. By the time the cost of renewables is added to that of their 24/7 backup facilities, total costs are up significantly while harmful emissions remain virtually flat.

Moreover, without storage (batteries), our capacity to deploy more renewables may be peaking as many utilities now sell their surplus at subsidized prices or even pay customers to absorb the excess. Storage of solar and wind energy might one day alleviate the problem. However, large-scale lithium batteries are still uneconomical today.

Natural gas, a hydrocarbon abundant and cleaner than both oil and coal, presents an opportunity. Gas-fuelled utilities can be turned on and off and, as such, are better suited to manage peaks and complement renewables. Yet, it is imperative that methane leaks – more damaging to the climate than CO2 – be controlled as gas usage spreads.

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