For those keeping score, the figures reached for the four countries examined so far are sobering.
To the extent that readers agree with the logic driving this argument—that looking at countries a little further ahead on the development path can provide rough analogues to energy consumption for other countries, we should be able to proceed fairly quickly at arriving at an estimate for the part of the developing world most likely to be of interest—those that have significant populations and are developing quickly.
At the beginning of this blog I asked what it would mean to the world to discover that our energy needs in 20 years had been significantly underestimated. Although I cannot provide a definitive answer, I do feel the responsibility to add my contribution.
I start by saying that it seems eminently possible to provide this extra energy to the world. If we need to supply 936 quads of primary energy to the world instead of 721, we will. Although localized shortages will certainly occur (mainly to countries too poor to pay for the energy they need), the lights will not go out and the gas tanks will not run dry—not in America, not in China, not in any country with the cash or good credit to buy it. Sufficient reserves of proven fuels exist to provide even this higher supply of energy.
The important question is what mix of fuels will be called on to cover the gap between what was thought to be needed and what actually is. If there is no planning, no acknowledgement of a changed reality, the odds are high that the mix will be dominated by coal. And I consider this to be a tragedy in the making. It’s a natural choice for an emergency supply—plentiful, inexpensive and familiar. But the costs carried with it are so high and would be felt so disproportionately by those just emerging from immiseration, that it would call into question the reasons for further development. If purchasing a washing machine comes with black lung for hundreds of thousands as part of the price tag, do we want the washing machine? If the numerous negative externalities associated with coal are an inevitable consequence of future development, what should have been a joy for all mankind becomes just more of the same old, same old.
It is true that coal is getting cleaner—but it isn’t clean enough to provide 215 additional quads worth of primary energy in 20 years without real consequences, both in terms of short-term health effects from traditional pollution and from the inevitable addition of greenhouse gases to an atmosphere that seems close to full. Environmentalists are trying to reduce dependence on coal even now—they will certainly not welcome increased reliance upon it due to new estimates of consumption.
It is possible that natural gas may step up to the plate and cover some of the gap—however, there are reasons to expect a more cautious deployment of fracking, at least in the developed world. Supplies of natural gas may be smaller than initially reported and more quickly depleted.
Similar constraints seem to limit the possibilities for other dependable sources of power, such as hydroelectric and nuclear, where siting and environmental fears have so far outweighed the potential benefits of these two workhorses of the energy field. Petroleum seems destined to be earmarked specifically for transportation and industrial uses, and will probably never again be used in bulk for pedestrian uses such as provision of electricity or heating.
Which leaves the field open for the trio of renewable sources of energy—wind, solar and biofuels. And each of them brings their own baggage with it. But each of them also has the potential to make a significant contribution. As volume manufacturing brings prices down and efficiency up, both wind and solar are set to step onto the stage as significant providers. Biofuels has a longer road ahead of it.
At the end of the day, we will be choosing a portfolio that will include each of these fuels. There is no point in excluding coal completely—it’s just completely unrealistic. Similarly, there is no point in demanding that wind or solar dominate the fuel mix, unless tremendous progress is made in both storage and transmission technologies.
So my contribution, small consolation and small beer though it is, is that the most important thing we can do now is to recognize the need and configure the portfolio now—to do what is needed to uprate existing hydroelectric dams and improve the efficiency of existing nuclear power plants, to design and site new facilities in both fields, to transfer the technology needed to make new coal plants as clean as possible in the developing world, and to be judicious in the introduction of natural gas, sending it to the places where it will do the most good, rather than the places where it may be easiest to sell. Above all, I recommend that we clear the path for smoother and quicker take-up of renewables, so that they can supply close to 30% of our needs rather than 10%, as would be the case if current practices continue. We’ve spent a generation getting the pieces of the puzzle in place for rapid deployment of wind and solar, and as we’ve done so the prices have dropped dramatically. The next wave of price reductions won’t come so much from cheaper solar modules or turbines. They will come from one-page permitting and sustained commitments to power purchasing at reasonable levels.
I believe that renewable energy can scale up to 300 quads of available energy by 2030. Electric cars and scooters recharged by solar power could radically reconfigure how energy is used (and stored) in both the developing and developed world. Properly configured and sited wind turbines matched with hydroelectric and pumped storage can provide large-scale regional, not just local, solutions. Combined heat and power plants, which currently provide 9% of the world’s primary energy, could be deployed at a far greater scale. Ground source heat pumps, district heating and other uses of cogenerating facilities, all of these are used at scale and are proven sources of power—there is no need to use science fiction solutions, no need for a deus ex machina. And the numbers can add up—and they won’t break the bank.
To plan and build the additional nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, combined heat and power plants, fully deploy wind, solar and biofuels, the scale of the problem must be acknowledged in the very short term and planning decisions put in the pipeline.
We do have choices. The point is to choose now.