Using Solar to Produce Oil: A "Bridge" to Sustainability or Simply Unethical?

The shift away from fossil fuels like oil towards reliance on renewables like solar will be decisive in many nations during the 2020s. By the end of this decade, the energy sources in use across the world will be far greener than they are today. There’s no controversy about this contention. Where common agreement becomes hard to find surrounds how soon such a shift should happen, and how many nations will have made a decisive shift by the end of 2030.

It is understood in this decade many nations and their energy providers will be in a "transitional" mode. To the minds of many eco-advocates, a good transition involves the scaling up of energy sources that are 100% renewable while scaling down fossil fuel sources. To others, they argue utilizing renewable energy to power fossil fuels can also assist in the transition—even if critics contend such a move is deeply unethical and problematic. Finding common ground in such a debate may be elusive, but it’s essential in the early days of this critical decade for green energy that all stakeholders are aware of its key perspectives.

Solar Panels at an Oil Field

Chevron Using Renewables to Generate Fossil Fuel

In April 2020 Chevron brought online a new energy project in California that has won the ire of environmentalists near and far. In the southern reaches of the Golden State, the American multinational’s Lost Hills location generates around 8,000 barrels of oil a day. Although true the most passionate renewable enthusiasts would contend in 2021 that number is 8,000 barrels too many, it is not simply the quantity being produced, but how, that has caused such consternation.

Thanks to a 29-megawatt solar installation, 80% of the oil field is now powered by renewable power. To supporters, such projects can serve as an important aspect of the gradual transition from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sources. It’s also true Chevron is not alone in pursuing installations like Lost Fields, with at least two other projects approved for California alone in recent times.

There’s also the politics of these matters. In an international community that is more turbulent in 2021 than in any time during this century, energy security is becoming a more critical issue. Just as renewable advocates will argue this is yet another reason to shift to renewable sources located at home even faster, for many major oil-producing nations the rapid wind-down of their reliance on fossil fuel while other nations continue the status quo—and indeed signal they intend to do so for many years, if not decades to come—is a challenging area to win popular support on.

These factors notwithstanding, although more solar anywhere, anytime is surely welcome when their installation is used to help the ongoing production of fossil fuels, many feel such a dynamic misses the mark on contemporary attitudes. Also, that it does a total disservice to pursuing future goals on renewable targets, and combating climate change.

The Justification for Oil Production a Slippery Slope

Eco-advocates will bristle at the arguments in use to justify using renewables to produce fossil fuel. For anyone holding such a perspective, the notion that renewables aren’t a first option—and then find use as a support for the production of more fossil fuels—surely leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This is evident in the perspective of David TurnbullSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, Strategic Communications Director for Oil Change International.

Using renewable energy in the generation of fossil fuels is at best putting lipstick on a very dangerous pig. There is already enough carbon embedded in existing fossil fuel projects to take us beyond the 1.5ºC global warming limit, so using technology to justify more mining and drilling is completely out of line with our climate imperatives.

—Mr. Turnbull told Solar Magazine.

“Big oil and gas companies already use solar energy to squeeze even more oil out of existing fields, through a process called 'solar thermal enhanced oil recovery'. There can be no justification for using solar power to squeeze every last drop out of existing fields”.

Mr. Turnbull also held there remains a disconnect between what fossil fuel companies put forward in the public relations campaigns, and the reality of their energy production.

Only if the fossil fuel industry was fully committed and accountable to a sustainable ramp down of production in line with what’s needed to address the climate crisis could its use of renewable energy be significant. But, the reality is that the vast majority of oil and gas producers’ emissions are derived from their products being burnt. That’s where the focus needs to be.

“While the fossil fuel industry continues to aggressively pursue production at a scale that will completely cook our climate, we can only view the use of renewable energy in their operations as either shameless public relations or unfortunately ironic business sense to use technology that grows cheaper by the day. Using renewables for unsustainable production simply can’t be seen as altruistic or sustainable.”

Will the Biden Administration Offer a Reset?

This week President-elect Joe Biden was sworn into office. Among his first acts was issuing executive orders that saw the U.S move to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, and also block the contentious Keystone XL pipeline. For eco-advocates and renewable energy enthusiasts, these two moves alone represent a sharp break with the previous Trump administration, and the four years of Donald Trump’s presidential term that critics held greatly hampered green action.

Regardless of any partisan politics, if the Biden administration can offer anything resembling a "reset" to the U.S.’s eco-policies pre-2016—or make inroads beyond it as President Biden aspires to do in enacting a $2 trillion policy that’d help create 500 million new solar panels within 5 years—then domestically far greater pressure will be placed upon fossil fuel businesses to change course. This is also applicable internationally, as though by no means has the rest of the international community been sitting idly by in the 4 years prior while the White House pulled back from action on climate change, yet the return to the White House of an administration intent on playing a leadership role in this space will see a huge resurgence of momentum in this area.

President Joe Biden and His Solar, Renewables Policy

While few could doubt the Biden administration’s intent in this area with $2 trillion dollars and 500 million solar panels earmarked for dispatch, observers also note President Biden could yet go further by moving quickly to end fossil fuel subsidies domestically, and public finance for fossil fuels abroad. To such observers, these moves would create a more uniform energy policy and accelerate momentum for the Biden administration’s goal of seeing the U.S. use only 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. To critics, such moves would be “too much, too soon” and result in unacceptable consequences in other areas such as rapidly rising levels of unemployment.

There’s little doubt—especially in an era where the delicate act of balancing the swift shift to green energy adoption with avoiding the negative byproduct of job losses is made all the harder by the coronavirus pandemic—that the Biden administration has many challenges in its path. But unquestionably the distinction between its perspective and the previous administration means far greater progress in this area can certainly be expected. Just as that offers new promise for the growth of solar and renewables generally, it does place new pressure upon fossil fuel companies to move away from "transitional" strategies to renewables-only installations—and just make the actual transition.

A New Direction in 2021

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

It remains early days in the new decade, but there’s little doubt of the potential for decisive progress to be pursued in 2021 in a way that it hasn’t in recent years. That’s something all solar enthusiasts can be positive about. At the same time, in many nations, the fossil fuel industry continues to enjoy a capacity to by and large set its own timetable for any switch to total production of renewable energy—if indeed there is any timetable set for such a shift.For renewable advocates anguished about the use of renewable sources in projects such as Chevron’s Lost Fields, there’s surely some measure of comfort in the knowledge such projects have indeed been controversial, and generated considerable media critique and discussion. This is surely not sufficient to those who would desire a more rapid and all-encompassing shift to reliance upon renewables, but it does suggest public leaders and popular opinion is increasingly trending towards enduring action on green energy and combating climate change.

Even if individual nations find themselves behind the pace of international sentiment in certain periods, the positive progress is seen elsewhere—such as the European Union’s 2020 Climate & Energy Package—affirm ongoing momentum in this area. For those who feel using renewables to generate fossil fuel is no bridge to sustainability, it’s surely welcome to know many nations have already crossed to the other side and have no desire to turn back in driving a decisive shift to renewable-only energy grids.comment↓

Chevron was contacted for comment in this story but did not respond before deadline.


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