Oil companies have been one of the most powerful opponents of renewable energy—but now, one of the biggest is predicting that it will dominate the world's power supply in a matter of decades.
Like the tobacco companies of yesteryear, oil companies have spent a veritable mountain of money fighting legislation that might promote alternative energy sources or threaten to make their product more expensive. They have done so both by funding psuedoscience that raises doubt climate change, and by lobbying the government directly to weaken or abandon laws that would penalize companies for polluting—which is necessary to make clean energy truly competitive.
For a point of reference, Exxon alone spent more money lobbying against the clean energy and climate change bill of 2009 than the entire clean energy industry combined. But apparently Big Oil has had a change of heart—or has made a slyly manipulative move. Either way, Shell's latest "New Lens" report about the future of energy comes with a somewhat surprising conclusion: Solar energy will provide the lion's share of the world's power by 2100.
Sun power will meet 37.7% of the world's demand, according to Shell's analysis.
Oil (10%) and biofuels (9.5%) are next up, followed by wind power (8.4%), natural gas (7.5%), and nuclear (6.3%). Coal is down to a piddling 4%, on the brink of extinction. Geothermal will produce a surprising, 4.4%, according to Shell.
The report predicts that oil prices will continue to rise, and will come to be considered as too volatile for investors and corporations. The fracking boom will peter out yielding less gas than expected, and governments will get their asses in gear and promote clean energy-friendly policies.
Specifically, "distributed" solar like rooftop or community arrays, will see a boom.
"These conditions favour distributed solar pv becoming a leading source of primary energy in the global economy," the report claims. "From its position today as the 13th largest energy source worldwide, it grows rapidly, reaching fourth place behind oil, gas, and coal by 2040, and continuing to the number one position in 2100."
The report however, stops short of giving renewable energy its full due—it claims at highest, clean energy can create just 60-70% of the world's energy. We'll still need oil, see, says the oil company. There are, of course, plenty of very smart scientists who would beg to differ. These Stanford researchers, after all, found that we could get pretty close to 100% renewables in just twenty years if we found the political will to do so. Other more cautious scientists have found that 95 percent clean energy by 2050 is entirely possible.
So Shell's projections are clearly pretty conservative, but seeing as how they're being made by an oil company factoring in its own interests highly in the mix, they're still worth noting. And the fact that the percentage of oil in the energy mix does shrink—in the US, right now, oil accounts for 34 percent of energy use. That number is a percent or two lower worldwide. That it dwindles relatively dramatically in this outlook—electric cars, perhaps—means Shell is at least semi-cognizant of peak oil.
2100 is a long ways off. It may well be that Shell is hailing the rise of solar from this grand distance in an effort to highlight its progressive bona fides while kicking the can as far down the road as could be credible.
Still, there's something encouraging about the fact that this report is essentially Big Oil admitting the future—hedging, sure, but admitting that its lifeblood is mired in the past. It's only a matter of time, Shell says: Solar power is going to win out.