Why Fossil Fuels Are So Addictive

The Fire Temple of Baku. Photo: Jahid - stock.adobe.com

In the heart of Azerbaijan, near the capital of Baku, “eternal flames” have lit the countryside for thousands of years, even catching the eye of Marco Polo. One flame forms the base of an ancient “fire temple” built for sacrifice and worship. Another erupted spontaneously out of a hillside, creating a 10-meter-long wall of fire. Both are fueled by natural gas seeping out of the ground, and they will burn continuously until the supply is exhausted.

Natural gas and other fossil fuels, like coal and oil, form the foundation of today’s global energy system. The world uses more fossil fuels every year, not less, despite goals for a transition to cleaner energy. To successfully transition, we must understand why fossil fuels are so entrenched and how to build off their strengths.


Like the “eternal flames” of Azerbaijan, fossil fuels burn around the clock. They are not dependent on weather conditions; so long as there is a constant supply, the lights will stay on. In growing economies like India, access to reliable electricity is critical. The country has turned to its plentiful and cheap coal supply to make power more predictable and lift millions out of energy poverty.

Plus, fossil fuels can be transported from extraction to end use. Oil from the Middle East goes to Europe to fuel cars, and coal from Indonesia goes to China to power homes. The flexibility and reliability of fossil fuels have been vital to their global success.


Fossil fuels are abundant worldwide and, over time, have proven cheap to extract. Original deposits of all types were found near the surface without too much effort, like in Azerbaijan. Today we have to dig deeper, but technological advancements have kept production high and prices reasonable. So much so that a gallon of gasoline is cheaper than a gallon of orange juice and, at times, a gallon of milk.

Cost is essential when considering regions with low access to electricity, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, which affects hundreds of millions of people. For the past 200 years, dramatic improvements in the overall quality of life on continents like North America and Europe have been contingent on cheap and readily available fossil fuels. Everyone deserves equal opportunity and affordability to live an energy-abundant life.

We need sources that can outcompete fossil fuels while driving down emissions.


The canary in the coal mine for fossil fuels is, no surprise, pollution. Without pollution from greenhouse gases, there would be no immediate need for a global shift to clean energy. It is helpful to remember why we use fossil fuels at the growing rates we do and why we need solutions that reduce pollution while extending the benefits of affordability and reliability to all.

Weather-dependent renewables like wind and solar need extreme additions to meet the same reliability as fossil fuels. California alone would have to build half the power generating capacity of the entire United States to meet demand with wind and solar by 2045. And building all that overcapacity is not cheap.

A United Nations-backed report reveals that many countries committed to net zero emissions still plan to increase their fossil fuel use in the coming decades. People around the world want energy that is reliable and affordable.

Clearly, we need sources that can outcompete fossil fuels while driving down emissions. Nuclear and geothermal rank the highest in capacity factor, a measure of how often plants run at maximum power, even beating out fossil fuels. Nuclear is betting on a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) to bring down the cost of the technology and reduce waste.

Geothermal is another affordable always-on power source. Traditional geothermal focuses on generating electricity from pockets of underground hot water, called aquifers. However, going deeper and hotter into dry rock would allow geothermal to generate 10x more power and operate in significantly more places around the world. According to the Clean Air Task Force, merely 1% of this “superhot rock” geothermal potential could meet global electricity demand multiple times over. It is time for a new torchbearer.

Fossil fuels have gotten humanity far and the reasons why should not be forgotten. Reliability and affordability underpin their continued dominance, a dominance that will not recede easily without stronger alternatives. Geothermal and nuclear give us our best shot at taking the strengths of fossil fuels, while driving down emissions, to keep the eternal flame of human development shining bright.

Energy is everything. At Quaise, we look at the big picture to see where the world is and where it needs to go. Today, fossil fuels still dominate global energy by a long shot. A smoother transition to clean energy requires a bold new vision grounded in science, scale, and speed. Join us as we explore the future of energy and the power of deep geothermal.