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Fossil fuels remain at the forefront, energy expert says

“Renewables [energy sources] will grow a lot, but they still will be ... a relatively small part” of energy consumption, said Daniel Yergin, a global energy expert.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The use of wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources will increase significantly over the next few decades, but fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas likely will continue to dominate the energy mix and drive the global economy, said Daniel Yergin, one of the world’s foremost energy experts.

“It’s a contest, or even a battleground,” Yergin said in an interview this week. “Renewables will grow a lot, but they will still be, 20 years from now, a relatively small part of the overall mix.”

Yergin is the founder of the consulting firm IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and the author of the definitive history of the oil industry. “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power” won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1992. His most recent book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the remaking of the Modern World,” is a follow-up to that earlier work.

Yergin on Friday delivered the keynote address at the MIT Energy Conference, an annual two-day gathering of industry insiders, academics, and policy makers. In a wide-ranging interview in his Cambridge office Thursday, Yergin tackled a variety of topics, including protecting the power grid from terrorist attacks and natural disasters; the false promise of oil independence; and the impact of cheap natural gas on power markets.


Yergin’s new book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the remaking of the Modern World,” is a follow-up to his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The low cost of natural gas, the result of the North American drilling boom, is driving higher-cost coal and nuclear plants into retirement, Yergin said. But with growing concerns over climate change, nuclear needs to remain part of the mix, he added, requiring the nation to figure out how to make it economical.

“We’re seeing perfectly good nuclear power plants close,” Yergin said. “It’s a no-carbon source of electricity, so there is concern about prematurely losing existing nuclear capacity.”


As the energy mix continues to shift, Yergin said, he expects the United States to rely on Canada for a larger share of its fuel needs. And that will happen, he added, with or without Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline project that would move Canadian oil sands crude into the United States.

He said that killing the pipeline would have little impact on reducing the use of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that they emit. Accelerating climate change has been a key argument against the pipeline.

“The Canadians, if they don’t ship it through Keystone, it’s going to come by rail,” Yergin said. “The big winner from not building Keystone is Venezuela, because their heavy oil has the same carbon footprint as the oil sands. [So] Venezuela or Canada, take your pick. Who is your favorite country and who is your neighbor?”

US oil production is also booming as the controversial drilling technique known as fracking opens new reserves, Yergin noted. But he questioned whether the United States will ever be able to free itself from foreign oil producers — whether Saudi Arabia or Canada — since oil prices are set globally.

“We’re not going to be independent in terms of price,” he said. “We’re still going to be part of the same global market.”

Yergin said one of his biggest concerns is the security of the nation’s power grids, which use computer technologies that can leave them open to cyberattacks. Yergin said the American economy is more vulnerable than ever to such threats because of the proliferation of technology and electronic devices across industries and households, which, of course, rely on electricity.


“We’re so much more dependent on it than we were 20 years ago. You don’t connect to the cloud without a grid,” Yergin said. “Until something happens, it’s fine. But something will happen. It always does.”

Earlier this week, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission urged a cautious approach to protecting the grid. Commissioner John R. Norris estimated that building walls and fences around 400,000 miles of transmission lines and 55,000 substations would rack up billions of dollars in costs.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at erin.ailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.