9th December 2013

Exploring the Future of Energy

Energy, the long view

I’ve followed discussions of the energy economy closely, and read (and wrote about) a number of reports by groups like the World Bank, International Energy Agency, and Energy Information Agency. I come in to this meeting with some idea of what’s being talked about, and with a few of my own opinions on things. It’s probably not a bad idea to let readers here know what my opinions are and what biases might shape my coverage. It’ll also give me the chance to think about whether anything’s changed once the meeting is over.

To organize this, I’ll divide it into two parts: the long term future of energy, and its short term future. We’ll think long-term first.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of efficiency and conservation. A lot of the reports that I read try to extrapolate decades into the future based on current trends, most of which involve slowly growing demand in the developed world and rapidly growing demand nearly everywhere else. The problem with these numbers is that the Earth contains and receives a finite amount of usable energy, so we can’t keep increasing the amount we use indefinitely.

This is easiest to illustrate with oil. If we add up the proven reserves of oil as counted by the Energy Information Agency, we come up with a bit under 1450 billion, but we’ll round up. There are 138.8kg in those barrels, bringing us to a bit over 200 trillion kilograms of oil there. Now, let’s imagine that the entire world ramps up demand and consumes gasoline at the rate the US does. According to the World Bank, that’s 1,108kg of oil burned as gasoline for every US citizen each year; the US Census organization says there are a bit over 7.1 billion people on the planet today.

Do the math, and you’ll see that we’ll burn through every known drop of oil in just over 25 years. Although that calculation ignores things like improved extraction and additional discoveries, it also ignores population growth, the burning of oil derivatives to run trains and fly planes, and its diversion to the chemical industry.

Clearly, expecting everyone to ramp up to US levels of consumption tomorrow is unrealistic. But it’s equally unrealistic to think that we can simply continue all existing trends indefinitely. The people who prepare the reports on the future of energy know that, and their reports generally reflect it. But the reality of things really doesn’t seem to have made it into the awareness of most of the public—certainly not here in the US, where talk of sustainability is often perceived as some sort of nefarious plot.

So yes, there are staggering amounts of fossil fuels left, but we can still burn through them pretty quickly if we’re careless about it. The Earth also receives staggering amounts of energy from the Sun each day, but we’re never going to be in a position to harvest more than a small fraction of it. We’re living in a finite world and, at some point, the growth in our energy use on Earth will have to be constrained.

So, for me, any conversation about the long-term future of energy has to deal with two concepts. One of them is conservation and efficiency: How do we make sure everyone can have a good standard of living even as we start to run up against some hard limits on energy consumption? The second is soft landings: How do we make sure we ease off consumption of fossil fuels before we’ve radically altered the climate and are scrambling to extract the last few grams at exorbitant costs? How do we make sure we use what we have efficiently so that it lasts longer? And how do we start transitions early enough so that we don’t lock ourselves in to infrastructure commitments that encourage waste?

It’s reassuring that the program has a session devoted to smaller footprints. But I hope to see mention of the need to think in these terms in other parts of the program as well.



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