Fossil Fuels: Explaining Humanity's dependence on Fossil Fuels

11 minute read

Updated on Wed Mar 03 2021

Good solutions come from a deep understanding of the problem.

What are fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) are formed after dead plants and animals are buried and exposed to extreme pressure and temperature.

How long do you think this takes?

How fossil fuels are created

These ancient fossil materials contain a lot of potential chemical energy. We can mine and burn them to release this energy for our own use, such as driving cars or generating electricity. Unfortunately, this releases CO₂, one of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.

How natural gas is burned

How do power plants work?

This might surprise you, but all coal power plants do is boil water. The coal is burnt in order to heat water which then turns into steam and spins a turbine to generate electricity.

How coal works

Natural gas can be used in a similar way. Alternatively gas can be used directly for residential heating and industrial processes such as creating steel.

Why use coal & gas?

Coal Miner

Most electricity is produced to match peoples’ and industries’ needs in real-time. Think of it this way: every time you turn on a light switch, some power plant increases its output.

The system that brings electricity to you is called the power grid or just the ‘grid’. The grid is sensitive to how much energy is produced at any given time, as supply needs to match demand almost exactly.

We either need to be able to control exactly how much electricity we produce at any given time or we need lots of storage to buffer the electricity generated. Coal and gas are good at this.

But really, the main reason we have been using more natural gas (and less coal) is cost.

Why use oil?

What type of energy is oil?

Oil can be considered a way to store energy. For example, it can just sit in a car’s tank until it is burnt and turned into kinetic energy through a motor to make the car move.

Oil is primarily used as a transportation fuel for cars, trucks, and aeroplanes because of its high energy density.

Oil is primarily used for cars, trucks, and planes

Electric cars are now available. However, to use electricity instead of oil, we not only need electricity but also a way to store it in the car. For this we often use batteries. We will talk much more about this in a later chapter.

Electric cars work well because they can carry a large battery. However, at present, the batteries that would be needed to replace oil-based fuels in airplanes would be too heavy for the plane to fly any sensible distance.

Can we get away from fossil fuels?

To get away from fossil fuels, we will need innovation. Contrary to popular belief, many of the technologies we will need do not exist yet. Getting away from fossil fuels won’t be easy, but there are lots of promising developments in clean energy technologies.

Getting away from fossil fuels

For example, since 1976 the cost of Solar PV modules has fallen a lot. Can you guess by how much?

Installing solar panel cost

What used to cost $100 now costs under $1! Electricity from solar power now costs about the same as electricity made from fossil fuels!

Unfortunately, we currently don’t have the technology to store enough energy for when the sun doesn’t shine. Still, the falling price of solar PV energy can serve as motivation to encourage innovation.

We’ll start this journey by carefully considering nuclear power in the next chapter.

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