Wednesday, 29 June 2011

One view of the coming energy shortage

Michael Klare writes in The Guardian about the next 30 years energy challenge.  Here are excerpts:

'Because the acquisition of adequate supplies of energy is as basic a matter of national security as can be imagined, struggles over vital resources – oil and natural gas now, perhaps lithium or nickel (for electric vehicles) in the future – will trigger armed violence.

...there is no way the existing energy system can satisfy the world's future requirements. It must be replaced or supplemented in a major way by a renewable alternative system or... the planet will be subject to environmental disaster of a sort hard to imagine today.

To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world's existing energy portfolio. According to BP, the world consumed 13.2bn tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010: 33.6% from oil, 29.6% from coal, 23.8% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectricity, 5.2% from nuclear energy, and a mere 1.3% from all renewable forms of energy. Together, fossil fuels – oil, coal, and gas – supplied 10.4bn tons, or 87% of the total.
Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years' time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat. Achieving a 40% increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.

Two barriers stand in the way of preserving the existing energy profile: eventual oil scarcity and global climate change. Most energy analysts expect conventional oil output – that is, liquid oil derived from fields on land and in shallow coastal waters – to reach a production peak in the next few years and then begin an irreversible decline. Some additional fuel will be provided in the form of "unconventional" oil – that is, liquids derived from the costly, hazardous, and ecologically unsafe extraction processes involved in producing tar sands, shale oil, and deep offshore oil – but this will only postpone the contraction in petroleum availability, not avert it. By 2041, oil will be far less abundant than it is today, and so incapable of meeting anywhere near 33.6% of the world's (much-expanded) energy needs.

Meanwhile, the accelerating pace of climate change will produce ever more damage – intense storm activity, rising ocean levels, prolonged droughts, lethal heat waves, massive forest fires, and so on – finally forcing reluctant politicians to take remedial action. This will undoubtedly include an imposition of curbs on the release via fossil fuels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, whether in the form of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade plans, emissions limits, or other restrictive systems as yet not imagined. By 2041 these increasingly restrictive curbs will help ensure that fossil fuels will not be supplying anywhere near 87% of world energy.

Given the lack of an obvious winner among competing transitional or alternative energy sources, one crucial approach to energy consumption in 2041 will surely be efficiency at levels unimaginable today: the ability to achieve maximum economic output for minimum energy input. The lead players three decades from now may be the countries and corporations that have mastered the art of producing the most with the least. Innovations in transportation, building and product design, heating and cooling, and production techniques will all play a role in creating an energy-efficient world.

Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels). Strict limitations on carbon emissions will certainly be universally enforced and the consumption of fossil fuels, except under controlled circumstances, actively discouraged. Oil will still be available to those who can afford it, but will no longer be the world's paramount fuel. New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe. No one can know who will be the winners and losers on this planet. In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question. Nor can anyone say today which of the contending forms of energy will prove dominant in 2041 and beyond.

Were I to wager a guess, I might place my bet on energy systems that were decentralised, easy to make and install, and required relatively modest levels of up-front investment. For an analogy, think of the laptop computer of 2011 versus the giant mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s. The closer that an energy supplier gets to the laptop model (or so I suspect), the more success will follow.

From this perspective giant nuclear reactors and coal-fired plants are, in the long run, less likely to thrive, except in places like China where authoritarian governments still call the shots. Far more promising, once the necessary breakthroughs come, will be renewable sources of energy and advanced biofuels that can be produced on a smaller scale with less up-front investment, and so possibly incorporated into daily life even at a community or neighbourhood level.

Whichever countries move most swiftly to embrace these or similar energy possibilities will be the likeliest to emerge in 2041 with vibrant economies – and given the state of the planet, if luck holds, just in the nick of time.'