The string of announcements would have you think the clean-energy revolution has finally arrived.
Tesla, the leader in all-electric cars, begins deliveries this month of their first mass-market machine, the $35,000 (U.S.) Tesla Model 3. Some breathless analysts are convinced the product will turn Tesla into the next Apple. At the same time, Chinese-owned Swedish car maker Volvo announced that, starting in 2019, its entire fleet will come only with electric or hybrid propulsion – no more gasoline- or diesel-only cars.
Meanwhile, renewable-energy production continues to rise at double-digit rates. Surely, oil is a sunset industry and output of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, will soon peak, then fall rapidly.
Not so fast. The problem with this utopian scenario is that electricity consumption is rising so rapidly that carbon-free energy production – from solar panels, wind vanes, hydropower, biomass and other clean sources – can't possibly keep pace. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), global electricity generation is expected to rise 69 per cent, to 36.5-trillion kilowatt hours, between 2012 and 2040.
Driving the rise is population growth, global economic growth (running at about 3 per cent a year), industrialization and rising incomes, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Hundreds of millions of new fridges, air conditioners and washing machines will have to get their power from somewhere, and not all of it can come from renewable energy, all the more so since nuclear energy appears to be on the wane.
The 2017 edition of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy noted that nuclear-energy consumption fell by 0.7 per cent a year between 2005 and 2015. Aging nuclear reactors – most were built in the 1960s and 1970s – are closing all over the map and some are not to be replaced. Germany is going nuke-free. In the United States, five reactors have closed since 2013. Collectively, those five generated as much electricity as the country's entire fleet of solar plants.
If fighting climate change demands burning less coal, oil and natural gas, and renewable energy can't keep up with the relentless global demand for energy, what's the solution? As radical as it sounds, it's conservation – a word you don't want to hear when you like your house cooled or heated to a constant 20 C regardless of the outside temperature.
Conservation is not as hard as it sounds. I live in Italy and I figure our energy consumption is one-quarter to one-third of what it was in Canada, and we're not even trying hard to cut back.
How do we do it? Even though the summers are long and hot, we don't have air conditioning. Most Italian homes don't. Instead, we rely on ceiling fans and wooden window shutters, which are lowered in stages as the blazing sun hits different sides of the apartment. It's a remarkably efficient system.
We have no clothes dryer, a machine that consumes enormous amounts of energy because it combines a heating element with a spinning motor. Instead, the damp laundry is hung wherever there is space – on a clothesline over the bathtub, on the backs of chairs, on radiators. Yes, it's unsightly at times, but so are Italian electricity bills.
We have no microwave and our fridge is tiny by North American standards, because, like most Italians, we tend to buy for the next meal, not for the whole week, as we did in Toronto. We rarely use our (little) car and do most of our shopping on foot even if the local shops are more expensive than the big-box stories on the fringes of the city. The car is mostly for suburban or out-of-town trips and when it goes to the great scrapyard in the heavens, we will probably opt for a car-share service.
Comparing electricity consumption between Canada and Italy is not absurd. Both are Group of Seven countries with similar family wealth. Both countries have wide temperature differences between summer and winter. Yet, the Italians are energy sippers compared to Canadians. The EIA says that, in 2014, Canada's per-capita electricity consumption was three times Italy's. Britain's was only slightly higher than Italy's. Germany's is less than half of Canada's, and Germany is one of the world's wealthiest and most industrialized countries, with cold temperatures.
Is it better to keep building power plants or reduce consumption? The latter, of course, and it might not be hard as it looks. Of course, higher European electricity prices encourage conservation. But Canadians apparently don't realize that consuming less electricity won't wreck their lifestyles and would go a long way to reducing their carbon footprints.
Swapping your Chevy SUV for a Tesla or a Volvo will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions and put a lid on global warming – the cars' batteries have to be recharged and the electricity can come from dirty sources, such as coal plants. Using less electricity – the dreaded C-word, "conservation" – is the most efficient and easiest alternative.