Our world needs more energy and less CO2

The world needs more energy. More than 1.4 billion people live without access to electricity. Over a million people, twice Wyoming’s population, join the world’s population each week. And the parts of the world where the population is growing most rapidly are places with the least energy and the greatest poverty.

Energy TransitionUnder almost any energy scenario, world energy demand will continue to grow. And if choices are made, as some advocate, to “leave it in the ground” and limit fossil fuel or nuclear energy, who will determine the energy haves and have nots?

We have the resources to meet the world’s energy demands. The challenge is that those fuels that are the most affordable, available, and abundant—oil, gas, and coal—also produce the most carbon dioxide, or CO2. And with that increase in CO2 comes the specter of climate change.

How will the world meet the challenge of providing more energy while reducing CO2 emissions?

I’m an oil and gas veteran who’s worked in uranium, coal, renewables, and finance. I started in the late ’70s teaching geology. My first job in the energy business was exploring for uranium on the Colorado Plateau, followed by a stint with the US Geological Survey mapping coal seams in western Wyoming. In 1984, I took a job in oil and gas with Shell, a journey that eventually took me to more than 40 countries and to Royal Dutch Shell’s top role in global exploration. In the course of my Shell career I established a financing business for small oil and gas producers, oversaw Shell’s global upstream and downstream strategy and planning, helped run a 900-megawatt wind business, initiated gas-to-transport pilot projects and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) ventures, and acquired and developed shale gas and light tight oil.

This on-the-job education across the energy spectrum in industry, government, and academia instilled a healthy dose of pragmatism in my thinking about our energy and climate challenges. Despite the welcome and remarkable growth of renewable electricity generation, fossil fuels still provide more than 82 percent of the world’s primary energy—what we use to move our planes, trains, and automobiles; heat, cool, and light our homes; fuel our factories; manufacture our products; farm our fields; and power our communities, schools, hospitals and businesses. Energy, including fossil fuels, has been, is, and will be a force for good. As Elon Musk, head of the electric vehicle company Tesla said about oil and gas, “If we didn’t have them, we would have economic collapse and people would be starving to death.”

Transitioning to lower CO2 energy sources is not easy. Energy is not microchips where significant rates of new product penetration are measured in quarters and years. Market penetration of new energy sources is typically measured in decades. It took almost 70 years for coal, 65 years for oil, and more than 80 years for natural gas to garner a 20 percent market share of the world’s energy. Today, nuclear still only supplies about 5 percent of the world’s primary energy supply. Despite massive cost reductions, tax credits and subsidies, wind and solar are still less than 3 percent of the global energy mix. “Zero-carbon” electricity’s percentage of total global electricity supply has been decreasing the past decade as nuclear power plants have been shut down and new coal-fired power plants are installed. And despite great advances in electric vehicles, more than 80 million new gas and diesel automobiles are still purchased each year, and each has an average life of over a decade. CO2 emissions continue to grow.

An ideal energy system would be affordable, abundant, available, safe, secure, and sustainable, with low emissions and a small footprint.

As we seek solutions, recognize that there is a cost for everything. An implementable vision for our energy future requires a shift in mindset to move beyond that of the theoretical fabulist. The world will need all the energy that it can get, and that energy comes with tradeoffs—CO2 and particulates from fossil fuels; perceived radiation risk and waste storage from nuclear; reliability, footprint, and distribution for wind and solar; land use and ecological disruption from hydro. “Not in my backyard” for all.

An ideal energy system would be affordable, abundant, available, safe, secure, and sustainable, with low emissions and a small footprint. Price, reliability, and scalability matter. Costs must allow economies to grow at a sustained pace and be competitive with existing energy sources.

Nothing is perfect. No single energy source meets all these criteria. Instead, we should embrace a portfolio of diverse energy sources, conservation and efficiency measures, technology research and development, and CO2 mitigation projects that merit action now. What might this portfolio include?

On the supply side, natural gas power plants provide affordable, reliable baseload power generation with half the CO2 of older coal-burning power plants. Cost reductions have made wind and solar more commercially attractive in many regions and hydropower has long competed as a low-cost, zero-carbon energy source. New transmission infrastructure and smart grids will be essential to increasing power reliability and expanding renewables. Nuclear energy, including new modular technologies, brings significant advantages of scale. The importance of existing nuclear facilities should not be underestimated. For example, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, a candidate for early shutdown, contributes twice as much power as all the solar panels in California. That’s a lot of zero-carbon electricity.

Energy conservation and efficiency is one of the best ways to assure there is enough energy to go around while lowering CO2 emissions and saving money. Pathways available to us now include energy-efficient appliances, heating, cooling, lighting, and building materials; innovative architectural and urban design; retooled and redesigned manufacturing and industrial processes; accessible public transportation; fuel-efficient transportation (including electric vehicles); and much more.

We need a giant step change in energy research and development. US government support for energy R&D is anemic, about one-third of what it was during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Bill Gates and others have called for a “moonshot” approach to solving our energy dilemmas. Of particular interest to Wyoming is research and development in carbon capture, storage, and utilization and negative emissions technologies, both crucial to achieving lower CO2.

There should be many opportunities for new industrial-scale energy pilot projects in Wyoming, including carbon capture and usage for coal. Support for wind (which Wyoming is blessed with in abundance) and solar, will continue to grow as costs are increasingly competitive and reliability is improved. What is the potential for natural gas in transport and manufacturing? How can electric and fuel-efficient vehicle use be expanded? Wyoming, building on programs and initiatives at UW and partnerships with industry, could lead energy research and development.

Meeting the energy transition challenge will not be easy. Bipartisanship, disengagement, and divestment are not solutions. It’s a time for action, partnerships, and investment across the entire energy sector. The challenge of energy and climate may lead to setbacks and to cynicism in some. But others, Wyoming included, should see enormous opportunities for individuals, business, and society and step up to lead.

By David Lawrence

David Lawrence is a University of Wyoming 2016 Energy Law and Policy Fellow. He is Chairman of Lawrence Energy Group, LLC, a firm investing in emerging stage energy opportunities. Lawrence received his PhD in geology and geophysics from Yale University, is past chairman of the advisory board of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, and retired as an Executive Vice President of Shell after a global career spanning three decades.


  1. Ron Masters

    Yes, but the portfolio has global constraints on the acceptable mix. Fossil fuels are subsidized by externalizing costs, especially those associated with CO2. Internalize those costs with CCS, at the expense of coal profits? There just isn’t enough profit.
    CO2 stays in the atmosphere for millennia, and incremental warming continues for centuries. To meet the COP21 goal of limiting warming to 2°C, we must limit cumulative future net emissions to about 1 trillion tons, roughly equivalent to current proven reserves of oil. Gas reserves are almost as large, & coal is 3 times greater. Better leave as much in the ground as possible. Yes, we do need energy now, but is it ethical to use it at the expense of future generations?

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