Renewable energy: How can it replace fossil fuels?

Renewable energy: Image of a solar electricity farm

This blog post summarizes a presentation given by Simon P. Michaux on 20 Sep 2021 during the workshop Are There Biophysical Limites to Growth which was hosted by an organization named Wise Response New Zealand.

Simon P. Michaux is an Associate Professor of Mineral Processing at the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK).

Phasing out oil, gas, and coal

The focus of his presentation was twofold:

  1. How much renewable energy capacity do we need to be bring online to replace the current consumption of fossil fuels?
  2. How much metal and minerals will we need to produce to make that happen?

It felt depressing, at first

At least to me, at least initially.

While I’ve learned to have high expectations of human ingenuity, and our scientific, technological, and industrial capabilities, the task before us seems ENORMOUS.

And we’re already past peak production in oil and gas (but not coal), so there is a clock ticking in the background.

Here is a link to the presentation he gave: Assessment of the size and scope of non-fossil fuels systems to phase out oil gas & coal.

This post is a terse summary of it.

Within his presentation, he provides links to his full report and that link is provided below:

Calculations the researcher did

  • True scope of tasks to fully phase out fossil fuels, and the complete replacement with non-fossil fuel systems.
  • Existing ICE1ICE is the Intercontinental Exchanges where energy commodities are traded transport fleet size (cars and trucks, rail, maritime shipping, aviation).
  • Number and size of required batteries/hydorgen cells/solar panels/wind turbines, etc.
  • Required power grid expansion to charge the number of needed batteries and to make hydrogen.


Electric Vehicles

In 2018 the number of vehicles in the world is estimated to have been 1.416 billion, and they traveled an estimated 15.87 trillion km.

In 2020, 0.7% of all vehicles were electric.

For the same energy output:

  • Electric vehicles need battery storage space that is 3.2 times larger than what a hydrogen H-Cell powered car needs
  • A hydrogen H-Cell system will require 2.5 times more electricity to make the hyodren compared to charging batteries for an Electric Vehicle system.

All short-range transport could be done by Electric Vehicles. This requires:

  • 65.19 TWh of batteries (282.6 million tonnes of Li-Ion batteries)
  • An annual additional 6,158.4 TWH (terrawatt, not gigawatt) from the grid to charge them

All long-range transport could be done with hydrogen fuel cells

  • All transport trucks, rail (including freight), and maritime ships
  • Requires 200.1 million tonnes of hydrogen every year
  • Requires 11,553.6 TWh (again terrawatts) of additional electricity
1.39 billion Electric VehiclesTo charge the batteries
695.2 million passenger cards: 5.4 trillion km1,545.9 TWh
29 milliion buses and delivery trucks: 803 billion km1,597.5 TWh
601 million vans and light trucks2,988.6 TWh
62 million motorcycles: 160 billion km26.5 GWh (giga, not tera)
Total6,158.4 TWh

Industrial uses

Transitioning the following from fossil fuels to renewable energy requires this much renewable energy.

IndustryEnergy needs
Electrical power generation 17,086.1 TWh
Building heating 2,816.0 TWh
Steel manufacture 56.5 TWh
Total19,958.6 TWh

Again terawatts, not gigawatts.

Hydrogen economy

H2-Cell VehiclesHydrogenManufacture of H2
28.9 million freight trucks129.9 million tonnes7,503.7 TWh
Rail transport: 9,407 billion tonne-km freight, 1,720 billion km passengers18.5 million tonnes1,066.5 TWh
Maritme shipping: 72,146 billion tonne-km51.7 million tonnes29,083.4 TWh

To make that hydrogen will require 11,553.6 TWh of energy.

All together now….

SectorNeeded renewable energy EXTRA capacity
Electric vehicles6,158.4 TWh
Industrial uses19,958.6 TWh
H211,553.6 TWh
Total37,670.6 TWh

New power plants required to generate this energy

Using the 2018 power mix, we need to build 221,594 NEW non-fossil fuel power stations online.

To put this in context, in 2018, the number of power plants in the world was 46,423.

And here is how they break down:

TypePowerNumber of stations
Hydropower16,576.9 TWh12.504 stations
Nuclear power10,679.7 TWh834 stations
Wind power5,154.4 TWh63,445 stations
Solar power2,311.1 TWh69,573 stations
Other (geothermal, tidal)367.7 TWh609 stations
Biowaste to energy2,580.8 TWh74,628 stations

Wind and solar are intermittent, so we need batteries to store the power for later use.

Total additional global capacity needed

We need to replace 17,086.1 TWh of fossil fuel energy sources with 37,670.6 TWh of renewable energy sources.

If you click on the images below you’ll see an enlarged copy.

additional global power needed to phase out fossil fuels

I wasn’t seeing why it takes 37,670.6 TWh of renewable energy sources to replace 17,086.1 TWh of fossil fuel energy sources, so I emailed this question to the researcher. His answer is on page 636 of the full report, and is:

The 17,086.1 TWh is to phase out existing gas and goal power energy generation. The rest of the energy required is to:

  • Charge EV batteries
  • Produce hydrogen for H2-Cell vehicles
  • Phase out gas heating of buildings
  • Phase out coal fired steel manufacturing
new non fossil fuel power stations needed

Minerals needed vs reserves

I suspect THIS is why the current US Infrastructure Bill (that is just a bill right now and may never become law) contains provisions to move the US to a hydrogen-based energy system.

You can learn about that in episode 240 of the Congressional Dish podcast “CD240: BIF The Infrastructure Bill“.

Check out how long, at 2018 production levels, it will take us to mine enough metals to make enough batteries.

Metal2018 global productionMass needed for 2,772.6 million tonnes of Li-Ion batteriesYears of production at 2018 capacity needed to phase out fossil fuels
Copper21 million tonnes471.3 million tonnes22.4 years
Aluminum from smelter production60 million tones235.7 million tonnes3.9 years
Nickel2.3 million tonnes421.2 million tonnes183.1 years
Cobalt140 thousand tonnes77.4 million tonnes552.5 years
Lithium85 thousand tonnes60.2 million tonnes707.8 years
Graphite930 thousand tonnes610.0 million tonnes655.9 years

And even worse, for some metals, there literally are not enough known reserves on Earth to allow us to build enough batteries. Seriously.

So in order to build enough batteries to pull this off, we need to find additional sources of nickel, cobalt, lithium, and graphite.

metals needed vs metal reserves

You can watch his full presentation here

But I warn you, it feels a bit depressing, at least at first.

In the video I’m linking to below, I’ve linked to the proper start point for the presentation of Simon Michaux. The full video contains an introduction and multiple presentations, when when you click the video below, it will start the video in the right place for you.


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    ICE is the Intercontinental Exchanges where energy commodities are traded

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