Monthly Archives: January 2012

Our Energy Needs and Global Warming

I’ve been avoiding the discussion of global warming/climate change, because it always degenerates into folly. However, here it is as simply as I can put it.

I have made as strong a case as I can that energy consumption on this planet will grow faster than expected, reaching 1,000 quads around 2030, 2000 quads around 2050 and 3000 quads around 2075. As things stand now, over half of that energy is expected to be produced from burning coal or liquid fuels.

The world used 3,730 quads between 1990 and 2000, a period of time when temperatures rose rapidly. We will be using an amount approaching that total every year during the lifetimes of your children.

What I have written above alarms me.

Why Solar Is The Best Alternative

There’s sort of an 11th commandment in the renewable energy sector–‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another renewable form of energy’. So I’ll have to phrase all of this carefully.

Without speaking negatively of other forms of renewables I want to speak about why solar is the best of the lot.

Nah–I’m not going to get away with that.

We in the solar industry are not any nicer or better-behaved than professionals in the wind power industry. We’re not kinder to small animals and we don’t eat better food.

But the reason we’re going to win is inherent in the properties of solar as it is offered on the market. Let me explain.

Wind power as it stands today is marketed by large, multi-national companies (usually divisions of really, really large companies like GE) to equally large government bodies or utilities. It’s big business. It operates on big business timelines and is subject to the constraints that normally make big business difficult. If government starts to frown at wind power, it hides under a rock until things change.

For many of the multinationals, wind power is almost a sideline–they don’t live or die on wind. For some, in fact, it’s there to provide a green sheen to their reputation. So they don’t pay as much attention to it. And this has led them to ignore important pricing and supply signals, which led them to raise prices at really inopportune times, halting the momentum of their particular sector.

Wind is more expensive to install–but it’s also more expensive to maintain. You can’t put it up and forget about it. And when it fails, it does not fail gracefully–there are pictures of burning wind turbines all over the intertubes.

As I said, we in the solar biz are not better people than those in wind. But we can sell smaller scale systems to homes and businesses. We’re not exclusively tied to the same dinosaur customers. There isn’t the same concentration of manufacturers–there are maybe 10 serious wind turbine manufacturers. There are thousands (for now) of solar manufacturers. That’s why innovation is helping us more than wind right now–we’re not brighter than they are. We’re just under greater pressure from the competition.

Finally, although the big solar farms in the desert get the publicity (when it isn’t being lavishly bestowed on solar companies going out of business), solar’s footprint can be small enough to grow quickly without attracting hostile attention from the real forces that would fight us–the fossil fuel industry and (until recently, when they finally woke up) the utility companies. We snuck in under the radar, letting fracked natural gas and offshore wind farms get all the ink while we kept slapping small systems on your neighbor’s rooftop and the warehouse down by the strip mall.

So now we’re here. Imagine that.

…The Behinder We Get

In 2010, renewable sources of energy (mostly hydroelectric) produced 55.2 quads, or 10.5% of all the primary energy used on the planet.

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration expects production of renewable energy  to almost double by 2030, to 100.6 quads. At which point it will represent 13.9% of their projected total for that year (721.5 quads).

If energy consumption is closer to my projection of 963 quads, that same 100 renewable quads would be exactly the same percentage of the total as it is today…


What is our goal? To safely provide enough energy for the current and future population to allow for development and enjoyment of a lifestyle demanding as much energy as Americans now are privileged enough (and wasteful enough) to permit themselves.

This is 3,000 quadrillion BTUs. That’s how much energy a population of 9.5 billion humans (the probable population in 2075) would use if they used the same energy per capita as we do in the U.S. (327 billion BTUs per person right now). Note that most of Europe gets by on far less, and they have a pretty good lifestyle, so 3,000 is certainly an upper limit, not a conservative estimate.

Just to state the obvious, we probably cannot and certainly don’t want to do this with fossil fuels–not unless we want the world to look like China’s most polluted cities. We’ll certainly continue to use them–but they’ll get hard enough to find and prepare that they’ll be much more valuable commodities than they are today, and we’ll be using renewables shortly because they’re cheaper and easier to produce.

Last year renewable energy provided us with 52 quads. That seems like a very long ways from 3,000. But thanks to the miracle of compound growth and endless innovation, to reach 3,000 quads from renewables by 2100 only needs an annual growth rate of 4.6%. To do it by 2050 would require heroic growth–about 10% per year.

Is this feasible? The workhorses of renewable power right now are hydroelectric power and combined heat and power (also known as cogeneration). Hydroelectric power is set to double over the next 20 years, and CHP is growing so fast that nobody can keep track of it.

The renewables that get all the press–wind, solar and biofuels–have grown strongly over the past decade, but from such a small base that one has to wonder if they can continue at the same rate. I certainly think that wind has peaked–at least temporarily, due to the fall in the price of its natural competitor, natural gas. I think biofuels have a long ways to go in terms of fourth generation algae, but ethanol and biodiesel can fill in for the moment.

My long term bet is on solar power, which is dropping in price and spreading in terms of deployment and possibilities. From simple solar thermal for home water heating to complex concentrated solar power stations, solar is spreading like wildfire.

But for all the possibilities, the total energy from renewables has only grown 2% per year since 2007, in a favorable investment climate and with all the good will in the world.

We’re going to have to do better, which is why I’m certain we’ll have to look at nuclear.

And while we’re doing so, we can certainly look at the other elephant in the room–energy efficiency, or ‘negawatts’ as Bush the Elder termed them.

We currently waste half the fuel we burn in producing electricity, and there are endless opportunities to improve energy efficiency in our homes, offices, manufacturing plants and in the appliances and machinery we stick inside them. We could save billions and reduce power consumption greatly by being a bit more diligent in this regard.

For the moment, the final score is that renewables can and probably will play an important part in our energy future–but they won’t be enough on their own. Nuclear power and improving efficiency will have to step in to get us over the hump.

But note the above–we don’t need to invent a new technology or completely turn our economies on their heads. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, take it seriously, and trust the innovation engine inherent in free market societies to do the job.

And we’ll get there.

Unmet Need for Energy

India is the best example of how an inability to provide energy to those who need it is both a cause and a result of the problems afflicting the developing world.

India’s consumption of energy is rising quickly–at 7.9% per year since 1946 (So why does the DOE think that will fall to 2.3%?). But although India produces a lot of coal and has significant hydroelectric resources, it isn’t keeping pace with rising demand. So India needs to spend money on oil imports that it would probably rather spend on roads and schools. A lot of that oil is attractively priced from Iran, which needs a reliable customer because of its own problems with foreign affairs, so this complicates India’s relationships, especially with the US.

But India really has little choice. 800 million people in India burn dung and whatever firewood they can find for fuel. 40% of the households in India aren’t even hooked up to the grid. Power blackouts and fuel shortages have been holding Indian industry back for decades–and it isn’t getting better.

India is trying to compensate with domestic development of nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. But India’s poverty and the high price tags for getting those sources up and running have made it a long, slow process.

The latent demand for energy in India is such that if energy was magically made available to the country at a price they could afford, energy consumption would triple in nanoseconds–and keep growing from there.

Development is tough.

What normal people in wealthy countries can do

Don’t think you’re powerless. You are not.

Put solar panels on your roof or in your back yard. Buy an electric car. Use solar power to charge your batteries as well as supplement the electricity for your home.

Use less electricity at home. Replace the gas you’re using now with solar power.

It’s real, it’s measurable, it’s beneficial and it’s available now. And you could not get the solar charger from the company I work for. You’d have to use a competitor for that (although we’d be happy to put the solar panels on your roof).

Do it. Seriously–if you live in the American Southwest or West Coast, you really should do it.

Are there real-world energy alternatives?

If energy use is set to effectively double between 2010 and 2030 (and this blog has tried to make the case that it is), and if most of the fuel to power that energy use is expected to be coal, then we have a problem. Several problems really, ranging from air pollution, mercury and fly-ash to mining fatalities, black lung and CO2 emissions.

But as I hoped to show in my previous post, the infrastructure we’re planning to build does not change the portfolio mix–the percentages of energy we will get from nuclear, hydroelectric, natural gas, wind and solar farms–and coal–don’t look set to change. For every old coal power plant we retire in the U.S., China and India will build two or three. And for every new nuclear power plant we build throughout the world, the developing world will clamor for more–but that ‘more’ will be delivered by coal.

Kind of a pickle we’re getting into.

In order to change the equation, we would need fuel sources that could be built without long term planning and permitting schedules, sources that could respond to local needs and conditions. It would be ideal if they didn’t have a large footprint, as that is often the cause of planning and permitting delays.

And it would be nice if the energy was clean.

So I offer for your consideration solar power. Not the big photovoltaic solar farms that are beloved by utilities (as it meets their requirements to generate clean power without surrendering ownership or control).  They are just as difficult to permit as other plants. Their electricity has to be piped to customers, often at long distances. A plant the size of a coal-fired plant produces a tenth of the electricity.

Nope. We really have one realistic hope to get us through to 2030 without choking on our own exhaust. And that’s your roof. The roof of your home. The roof of your business. The roof of your church, synagogue, fire department, school and city hall. Rooftop solar produces local power for local consumption. It requires zero additional footprint. The investment is real–but getting cheaper by the month. The fuel is free–and will remain so forever.

I work for a solar power company, a home solar specialist. I am not writing this because I work for a solar power company. I went to work for a solar power company because I wanted to write this.

Solar power produces 0.1% of this country’s electricity. There are roughly 160,000 homes with solar panels on their rooftops–and roughly an equivalent number of offices, warehouses, IKEA or Walmart stores, community centers, etc. with solar.

But solar power drops in price by an average of 7% per year. By 2015, it will be cheaper than electricity provided by a utility for about half of American home owners. It already is cheaper in places like Hawaii, the Netherlands, Aruba and Curacao. Utilities keep raising prices. Solar keeps getting cheaper.

After 2030 we will need to supplement solar–but that’s the subject of another post. For now, while other fuel sources are running frantically on a treadmill just to maintain their percentage of the market, only small-scale solar can effectively serve as a substitute for coal.

We’re adding more capacity but changing little in fuel types and percentages

Depending on how you count them, there are between 430 and 440 nuclear reactors operating worldwide in 30 countries. They provide 14% of the world’s electricity.

There are 60 plants under construction, mostly in Asia. And there are plans at various level of completion for another 150 and proposals for 340 more. And if all of them get built, nuclear power will provide about 14% of the world’s electricity. You have to run pretty hard to stay in the same place in a world where development is the major story.

Broadly speaking, the same is true of hydroelectric power, wind and solar. There are ambitious plans for dramatic growth–China is planning 22 major dams along its mighty rivers, and its neighbors are planning even more (and are contracting with China to build them). But that won’t be enough to keep pace with the growth of demand.

Wind and solar could grow by 36% per year for 20 years (as they have for the past ten) without moving the dial on how much they contribute as a percentage of energy provided.

What we’re planning to do for the most part is build an awful lot of coal plants in the developing world, and replace aging coal plants with natural gas in the richer countries.

So it looks like the energy fuels portfolio is pretty much set. It takes a lot of time to plan, permit and build these facilities. We pretty much know how much power we’re going to get from various fuel sources to provide the 963 quads we will need in 2030.

Or do we?

The world’s current power infrastructure

Both the IEA and CARMA put the number of power plants worldwide at about 50,000. Of these, the IEA carries information on about 2,300 coal-fired plants that use about 7,000 individual generators. However, Platts UDI Directory has listings for over 160,000 electricity generating power units.

The typical size of a coal fired power plant is 500 megawatts. China has over 600 coal fired power plants and is building more. Depending on which urban legend you’re listening to, it’s either one a week, two a week, one every 10 days, or maybe one every 30 seconds…

The number of producing oil wells has fallen under a million–it would appear that there are more than 800,000, down from almost a million 20 years ago. The oil is refined in about 700 refineries around the world.

There are 435 nuclear power plants either in operation or under construction in the world as of January 2012. The United States has about 124 of them, France about 85.

Although there are about 800,000 dams worldwide, only about 45,000 of them are considered large enough for commercial hydroelectric power. (Global Markets for Renewable Energy, BCC Research, 2010)

There appear to be a bit more than 200,000 wind turbines operating around the world. (Based on a 20% market share attributed to Vestas, which claims to have sold 39,000 turbines worldwide.)

Platts UDI also has listings for more than 8,500 simple-cycle, combined-cycle, and gas turbine plants worldwide.

There are probably several hundred solar power plants throughout the world, although their total energy contribution is quite small in the scheme of things.

That’s what we’re working with. It creates 500 quads of primary energy for us to use and abuse. It cost a lot of money, it takes a lot of space, and it creates a lot of pollution–a lot of which is CO2.

So let’s play mix, match and build. How do we want to configure a portfolio of energy sources that will provide six times as much energy?

China’s Electricity Consumption in 2011…

…was up 12.2%, according to China’s National Energy Administration. That’s not the same as total energy consumption, but it kind of hints that the U.S. EIA estimate of 2.3% might look a tad low…

China’s energy consumption averaged 9.57% per year between 2000 and 2010.

In 2011, overall consumption grew 11.5%.  The EIA shows China’s consumption at 104.6 quads for 2010, 107.0 for 2011, and they project 110.7 for 2012. Their new and improved projections for 2030 are 177.9 quads.

Would anyone care to wager what year they actually surpass that last figure?

3,000 equals 500 x 6

I think it’s time for a general discussion of the major theme advanced here in the early stages of this blog.

I am seriously suggesting that the world will use six times as much energy in 2075 as it does today. In the posts below I’ve tried to show why. In this post I would like to discuss what it means.

I think to a certain extent we’ve been sleep-walking into the future, because we’ve been distracted by two arguments that are important in themselves, but peripheral to this larger issue.

The first argument was about peak oil, the idea that the easy oil had been dug out of the ground and future supplies were going to be harder to find and harder to extract, driving up the price.

The second argument was that the cumulative concentrations of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution had already started significant global warming and that far from planning to use more energy, we needed desperately to reduce our current emissions.

Those are real arguments and I don’t want to minimize them. (Nor do I really want to get sidetracked into re-fighting those wars.) But they have obscured the reality that the developing world is charging ahead into a future where they are determined to live the way we do. One aspect of living the way we do is consuming energy at the same rate we do.

We burned 500 quads of energy in 2010. My calculations show that we may well burn 3,000 quads in 2075. I’d really like to get some feedback on what this may mean for us all.

What will 2075 look like if we’re burning 3000 quads every year?

There are two pitfalls I want to avoid falling into in discussing the medium term future as it relates to energy consumption.

The first is straight-line mania. Example: We used 500 quads in 2010. If we use 3000 quads in 2075, let’s just multiply everything by six. So, if we have 50,000 coal fired electricity plants now, we’ll have 300,000 coal fired electricity plants then. I don’t think for one minute that that’s the way it will play out, and just a quick look at headlines over the past decade show that we react more quickly than that assumption would include.

The second pitfall is doomsterism–that consuming 3,000 quads will precipitate a crisis that causes such a radical reordering of the world’s economies and political systems that it makes prognosticating useless. I don’t think that’s going to happen either. Will using 3,000 quads a year have an environmental and climate impact? Yes, without a doubt. Will we be swimming in lakes from Kansas to Kamchatka? No, we won’t–the consensus on climate change and alternative energy will guide decisions that will begin (note: begin) to mitigate some of the impacts of our energy consumption, primarily in the portfolio mix of fuel sources.

It’s something we’re going to have to manage.

Because of the intensity with which the climate wars have been waged over the past couple of years, it’s probably best for me to lay my cards on the table right here at the beginning:

  • Do I believe that burning 3,000 quads a year will have an impact on the climate? Yes. Definitely.
  • Do I believe that that impact will be negative overall? Yes. Definitely.
  • Do I think we should begin taking steps now to reduce that impact? Yes. Definitely.
  • Do I honestly believe there are actions we can take that will materially reduce that impact? Yes. Definitely.

That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this.

Next Steps

Okay. I’ve made my case here that the world will somewhat unexpectedly be burning almost 1,000 quads of fuel in 20 years’ time.  When I muster up the courage to get back into the data, I’ll strive to make the case that we’re on course to consume 2,000 quads in 2050 and close to 3,000 quads by 2075.

In the meantime, I intend to blog for a while about what a world that consumes that much energy will look like and the choices we can make that will influence the outcome.

What you will not ever see me do here is to say that 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 quads is too much energy to consume. I don’t believe that. If that is the appropriate amount of energy to consume to help the world develop to a standard of living that the people living in it consider adequate, then I think we need to do that. Indian farmers should not have to burn dung because politicians  think energy should be rationed.

I’ll be happy to explore the role energy efficiency can play in helping us keep the environment clean and maybe lower the demand we put on energy producers. But I pretty firmly believe that we’re going to need energy in the amounts I’ve been writing about.

Research Tables and Report

Hi all,

Here is the Excel worksheet that contains the data used in preparing this analysis:

Country worksheet published

Here is a PDF report of that analysis. It roughly replicates the posts that began this weblog, with some exceptions I’ll explain in a moment.

Energy Consumption in the Developing World in 2030 v3

In my preliminary posts on the blog, I was working off a slightly different list of countries that included some countries I consider to be developing rapidly (e.g., Turkey and Mexico) but are already in the OECD. I backed them and a few others out and now have a list of 125 countries that are not in the OECD. So some of the headline numbers change slightly–however, the broad sweep of the analysis is not affected by these changes.


Anyone who takes the time to read this will quickly note that the conclusions are heavily dependent on selecting the appropriate ‘partners’ used to highlight the development path of the countries I look at here.

I would greatly appreciate any help offered in insuring that the partner countries I chose are in fact suitable for the comparison I use them for.

Repeat of Research Findings With New-ish Numbers

I looked at projected energy consumption totals for 125 countries that are not part of the OECD and have populations of over 1 million. In 2010, these 122 countries had a combined population of 5.86 billion, and a combined GDP of $21.3 trillion. By 2030, they will account for 7.17 billion people and their combined GDP is projected to be $41.17 trillion.

In 2006, these countries consumed 251.16 quads. The EIA projected (in 2010) that in 2030 these countries will consume 438.86 quads, a CAGR of 2.26%. My methodology indicates that these countries may well consume 672.33 quads, a CAGR of 4.02%.

That would permit the inference that global energy consumption will be closer to 951 quads than the EIA’s 2011 projection of 721 quads in 2030. The difference between the EIA’s estimate and ours—233.47 quads—is greater than the current energy consumption of the U.S. and China combined. (I get to that total by assuming that EIA projections are accurate for the OECD at 278.7 quads.)

What drives the difference? For 106 of the 125 countries, we paired these countries with other, similar, countries that had preceded them along the development path, and used historical figures of per capita energy consumption and per capita GDP to provide new figures. For the other 19 countries we were unable to find suitable pairings and took the EIA estimates instead.

The EIA calculated a 2.2% CAGR for the developing world in their 2010 report (and increased that to 2.3% for their 2011 update). Our calculations, when including the countries where we accepted the EIA estimates, showed a CAGR of 4.02%. For the countries where we were able to find a paired country as an analogue, the CAGR was higher, at 5.07%.

The countries where we were unable to find an adequate ‘paired’ country had a 2006 energy consumption total of 33.9 quads and are projected by the 2010 EIA report to consume 58.3 quads. They included major energy producers such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates, countries that are already consuming very large amounts of energy per capita. They also included high income states such as Taiwan and Singapore. In both cases we felt that we were unable to determine if further development would result in higher per capita energy consumption.

Thirteen of the countries we paired with examples yielded CAGR figures lower than the EIA. Almost all of those countries were Eastern or Central European states, including Russia. Their energy consumption in 2006 was 41.9 quads, and the EIA projected (in 2010) that their 2030 consumption would be 56.2 quads. Our estimate for 2030 energy consumption for these countries was 50 quads.

The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) explain much, but by no means all of the discrepancy between the EIA’s projections and our own. According to our projections, those four countries will account for 405.36 of the 672.3 quads from this set of developing countries. The EIA had projected (we infer, from the CAGR percentages applied to non-OECD nations) 243.2 quads from the BRICs.

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming–EIA’s Early Release of AE2012

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Administration Program has released a report with the early findings of their 2012 energy analysis of the U.S.

Highlights include:

  • Estimated energy consumption in 2012 of 96.8 quads, as opposed to their prediction of 99.46 quads for 2012 made just last year
  • Projections of consumption of 105.29 quads for 2030, down from last year’s prediction of 111.03 quads for 2030
  • Projections of 107.97 quads for 2035, down from last year’s prediction of 114.19
  • Projected CAGR of 0.4% through 2035, down from last year’s projected CAGR of 0.6%

The Executive Summary of the report is here. The interactive tables showing their work is here. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein offers rapid reaction here.

If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll think about this before weighing in…

More Housekeeping Notes about this blog

Hi, all.

I’ll be posting up the data tables later today so you can check my work. I’ll be leaving things as they are for a day or so, in case anybody’s actually working with these posts.

But in a couple of days I’m going to reorganize all these posts into narrative form–the whole picture is sort of upside down at this point, due to the way blogs work.

This heads up is in case anybody is linking to specific posts as opposed to the blog’s URL–I’m not sure if your links will break if I move the post, so maybe you’ll want to hold off, just in case.

Recap and Discussion

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.


Once again, sorry about the tables. (Update–tables fixed.) I’m posting from a laptop that doesn”t have MS Office applications yet, so this is how Google Docs renders my previous writing. I’ll switch the tables out when I get a moment–but it probably won’t be until after the 49’ers game…

One of the fastest growing countries in the world is Brazil. It has a population of 191 million, and its energy consumption reached 10.6 quads in 2009. In 2006, energy consumption was 51.2 mbtus per capita. Brazil’s energy consumption grew at 3% per year between 1990 and 2010.Brazil’s Energy Planning Company EPE predicts that the country’s energy consumption will rise 3.7% annually, to 21.2 quads by 2030#. This is roughly in line with the Brazilian National Energy Plan, which forecasts a rise to 22 quads by that date.# Like Indonesia, Brazil has access to large supplies of energy, ranging from hydroelectric and ethanol at the greener end to vast oil deposits offshore. While India may face constraints on meeting the energy demand of its people, Brazil and Indonesia will not.
Pairing Brazil up with another developing country leads us back to Oman, which had, as noted above, per capita GDP of $11,528 (in 2005 dollars) in the year 2006, close to the per capita GDP projected for Brazil in 2030. Again, their per capita energy consumption that year was 177 mbtus. If Brazil’s population in 2030 does indeed reach 240 million and they do follow a pattern of consumption similar to Oman’s that would result in the much higher total of 42.54 quads.

Indonesia–smaller in scale but the same basic story

Like India, Indonesia has grown dramatically in recent decades, and like India it suffers only by comparison to the astonishing performance of China. Indonesia’s energy consumption grew 315% between 1980 and 2001 and has continued to grow since then, reaching a total of 5.6 quads in 2010.  If it maintained that level of growth through 2030, Indonesia would consume 17.64 quads, far more than the 8.7 quads the EIA projects. And the Indonesian National Energy Council predicts just that—a tripling of demand by 2030.

Indonesia’s situation is complicated by its situation as an energy exporter (it is the world’s largest exporter of coal, mostly to China), which means that existing stocks of energy supplies can be quickly converted to domestic use if required.
If Indonesia were to consume energy at the same per capita rate that Thailand does today when it reaches the same level of per capita GDP, it would be 16.72 quads, almost 60% more than the EIA projects.
However, if there is a short list of candidates for heroic performance in GDP growth among the developing countries, Indonesia must surely be on it. They are the world’s largest exporter of coal. The World Bank predicts growth for 2011 and 2012 at over 6%, and over the past decade the middle class has grown to 56% of the population, normally a sign of intensified energy consumption.

But it doesn’t end with China–see India

From an energy standpoint, India today can quite accurately be described as being where China was in 1980. In that year, China’s per capita energy consumption was 17.6 mbtus. In 2006, India’s was 15.9, having tripled from the 5.9 mbtus per capita it consumed in 1980. It desperately needs the same level of infrastructure build-out that China has been engaged in since Deng Xiao Peng declared a new era for China in 1978.Although India faces obstacles to growth, such as red tape, corruption, illiteracy and more, China did too. Although India’s per capita GDP doubled between 1998 and 2010, growing by 6.4% annually, the end total–$965 per capita—was a third that of China in the same year.

Projections through 2030 show India’s per capita GDP reaching $3,309, which is very close to Thailand’s per capita GDP today. And the EIA projects India’s energy consumption to reach 37 quads by that time, up from 20.5 quads in 2010, a CAGR of 2.39%.

However, a report titled Integrated Energy Policy, Report of Expert Planning Commission, predicts an annual increase in demand (not production—they are not certain India can provide for its energy needs) of between 5.2% and 6.1%. And this is an important point. China has the money to import energy. Some of the countries examined below are net exporters of energy and can divert energy supplies to domestic use as demand grows. This may not be as viable an option for India over the next two decades, creating a latent and unmet demand for energy that could surge if the economics of energy changes and leave hundreds of millions in an energy-starved situation.

Once again, GDP projections seem oddly disconnected from projections of energy consumption. In an extremely poor country with very large needs for infrastructure, housing, roads, and tens of millions of people eagerly waiting to buy cars to drive on those roads, while per capita GDP is projected to triple, per capita energy consumption is not even expected to double. The rate of growth is actually expected to slow down. India’s per capita energy consumption had a CAGR of 4% between 1980 and 2006. Any slow down in the growth of energy consumption will be happening as India’s population grows, overtaking China as the most populous country—in 2030.

To put it in perspective, the EIA projects that India, with a 2030 population of 1.52 billion and a per capita average GDP of $3,309, would use about the same amount of energy as did North Korea in 2007.

Friday start to the weekend

If we are burning 3,000 quads a year, there’s no use asking for justice. We will need to beg for

It Starts With China, Part the second

Let’s start with China and see how it works. In 2010 they consumed about 100 quads. The EIA projects that to rise to about 163 quads by 2030 (based on Figure 14 of their report showing China as consuming 23.7% of the 739 quads projected for the world). That’s a CAGR percentage of 2.47%, higher than their estimated growth rate for the rest of the world—1.4%. But is it high enough? As mentioned above, China’s energy consumption grew in 2010 by over 11%, and they look set to match that in 2011.

On a per capita basis, China’s energy consumption rose from 29 million British Thermal Units (mbtus) to 56.2 mbtus between 1996 and 2006, the latest date available for examination at the EIA website.

China’s per capita GDP is also set to grow, from its 2010 level of $2,802 (measured in 2005 U.S. dollars) to $10,718 in 2030. And during this period, China’s population is also projected to grow from its current 1,341,335,000 to 1,393,076,000.[1]

Starting With a Bad Example

As it happens, Hungary had a very similar per capita GDP—$10,676—in 2006. It’s certainly not absurd to conjecture that their energy consumption per capita might be quite close to China’s energy consumption when it reaches Hungary’s level, whenever that might be.

Hungary’s per capita energy consumption that year was 114.7 million btus. Applying that to China’s projected population yields a total of 159.7 quads—and that’s far less than the EIA projects.

However, Hungary has been a well-developed nation for a long time, with a stable population and needing little in the way of fresh housing stock or road building, and its population’s needs for appliances and cars are for replacement rather than new acquisitions by people joining the middle class for the first time. The same would hold broadly true for other European countries with similar incomes. Is there a better example?

Apples and Apples

I offer for consideration Oman—a developing country whose population and GDP has grown quickly in recent decades, if not as quickly as China’s, and which had a per capita GDP of $11,528 in 2006. Their per capita GDP doubled between 1980 and 2006, showing that development was vigorous and sustained, much like China’s.

Although much smaller than China, Oman has many parallels, even to the extent of using 5-year plans to steer their economic development. They have spent the last 40 years taking a development path that may not be radically different from what China will be doing in the next 25. Their population growth rate has been similar to what China expects. They have a long coastline, and maritime developments may be similar between the two. Their neighbors have been as touched and troubled as China’s. The CIA World Factbook lists many features in common. So Oman seems a very good comparison and far more appropriate than Hungary, primarily due to China’s continuing development of basic infrastructure and the number of people moving into the middle class over the next 20 years.

Oman had per capita energy consumption of 177.2 mbtus in 2006. If China’s per capita energy consumption were to reach the same level as Oman’s, it would total almost 247 quads. Whether China achieves that level of development in 2020, 2035 or 2050 is not significant here; when their per capita GDP approaches $11,500, their energy consumption may be near 250 quads. And as far more analysts make their living projecting financial trends than energy consumption (and have far more at stake), we would expect to see fairly accurate projections of when China would arrive at that point. If the EIA has their GDP figures right, it will be in 2035. The Price Waterhouse Coopers study mentioned earlier predicts that China’s GDP will grow more quickly (at a 6.3% CAGR). If that’s correct, it would happen in 2032.

I should look at one more point before expanding our examination. Is it realistic to think that China actually can provide adequate energy to achieve the increase demanded by their rising GDP? After all, we are talking about a rise from 56 mbtus per person to 177 mbtus in as short a period as 20 years.

It would be nice if history provided some examples of that happening in non-island countries (island countries frequently have wild swings in energy consumption for a variety of reasons, usually stemming from dramatic changes in the primary fuel sources used).

There are several—the states comprising the former Yugoslavia increased per capita energy consumption from 77 mbtus to 174 between 1980 and 2006, and Iceland went from 250 to 348. And a number of countries either doubled (Turkey, Hong Kong) or even tripled (Malaysia) per capita energy consumption during the same period. And, as luck would have it, Oman doubled its energy consumption and per capita GDP between 1980 and 2006. There is also one other country that tripled its energy consumption in that time frame—China went from 17.6 mbtus per capita in 1991 to 56.2 in 2006. So it can be done.

Few people think that China will grow at the same rate it achieved over the past few decades. Indeed, very few developing countries—actually, no developing countries—have an unbroken streak of continuous growth at high levels for the fifty year period that we’re referring to for China. But then, very few believed that China could maintain this high rate of growth over the past three decades…

[1] Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision,

Second Day of Blogging–Plans and Hopes

Well, the first day of blogging about 21st Century Energy issues was really gratifying. About 250 of you showed up to say hi and see what this is–thanks.

It strikes me, however, that I might have a better chance of getting people to come back for a second visit if I lay out my plans and hopes for this little enterprise. This is something that could actually be shaped by your opinions, especially since it’s early days here. So feel free to let me know what would be useful and interesting to you in this regard.

Most of what is below this post is material I gathered together in hopes of submitting a paper to a journal or maybe a magazine as an article. I’ve got quite a bit of it left to post, so I’m going to look a lot busier than I actually am.

This part of the blog is intended to lay out my case–that we’re going to be using a lot more energy than people think. I will post tables and make my data available, and will be happy to discuss it, but I’m pretty sure the case I make is convincing (with some caveats where I will be specifically asking for your help). You’ll see an example of this about an hour after I post this, as I’m going to put up some figures about China as soon as I can.

That part of this weblog will be about 10 or 15 more posts at this stage. I will then start discussing with you what the consequences of this energy consumption are, what the world will look like when we’re consuming 3,000 quads every year. I expect elements of that discussion to be ongoing.

After we lay that out coherently (I say we because I hope to be working with you by that point, as opposed to simply laying out results of my research), I would like to start a discussion on alternatives–if we don’t like the way the future looks without real changes, what real changes can/should we make? I think at that point we’ll start having a lot of fun.

When I came back to San Francisco from Europe a couple of years ago (because I had just predicted a huge recession and thought I should act on my own beliefs), I resolved to choose between focusing on either health care issues or green technology for the next stage of my career. My previous focus on information and communications technologies had started to seem like looking at a plumbing trade magazine–I was sick of looking at routers and virtualization schemes and wanted something fresh.

I chose green technology after writing some industry research reports on both sectors. Both healthcare and green technology are geared towards prevention in the early part of the 21st Century. Healthcare has adopted the philosophical stance that making us stop smoking, drinking to excess, eating sugary foods, etc., is the most effective use of their limited resources for now. Green technology is oriented towards preventing consumption of fossil fuels and emitting CO2. Not that big a difference. But green technology is going to need innovation as much as changing behavior, while healthcare at this point seems to be just going after the way we live.

I’m really happy with my decision–for now. I think healthcare will get interesting again soon, after biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics combine to redefine it. But those new sectors will affect green technology as well, and I have no doubt we will be discussing them here.

I am going to have a great time writing about all this. I hope that you’ll have a good time contributing to this effort and reading the results.

Again, welcome.

It Starts With China, part the first

Applying the 2.2% CAGR percentage for energy consumption that  the EIA assigned (in 2010) to the developing countries, they project that China will consume 162.7 quads in 2030. (Like the U.S., China consumed 100 quads in 2010.) I think that China will consume 246.6 quads in 2030. The difference—83.9 quads—is enough to change everyone’s vision of the future, if it is true. China has put forward an incredible plan for growth of its energy infrastructure. If it is based on the highly respected EIA projections, it may not be sufficient for their needs.

China’s annual growth in GDP from 2000 to 2010 averaged 9.9%. Their consumption of energy grew over the same period of time at a 9.57% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). If they merely maintain that for the next few years, the EIA’s projections are bound to fall short of their projected totals.

The EIA in fact is predicting an astonishing slowdown for China’s energy consumption over the next 25 years, something that would be as dramatic and profound as their recent growth. As they assume China’s economy will continue to grow at a robust rate, this should be explained. As yet, it has not been.

Evidence that the EIA’s underlying assumptions in energy projections should be challenged comes from widely reported statistics regarding China’s growth. China’s energy consumption grew 11.5% in 2010 alone, and they have marked out a path for growth that has energy consumption double between 2010 and 2020. Even if the EIA were broadly correct in predicting a fall-off in China’s energy consumption, missing the start of the decline renders their analysis useless for those charged with preparing the infrastructure needed for Chinese children—and ours.

Clearly, over-reliance on CAGR can be a trap, especially when dramatic change is part of a forecast. But for those charged with making plans for the medium term future, it is probably not nearly as important to precisely delineate the rate of change as it is to show broadly correct totals at various points on a continuum. Is there another way of projecting energy consumption that is more closely tied to reality? I think so.

The EIA also breaks energy consumption out on a per capita basis. This is quite useful, as with a bit of cross checking against future populations and projections for GDP, we can analyze, for example, China’s projected energy consumption in the future by comparing it to the energy consumption of a country that is at that level of development today. Energy figures used in this exercise come from Table E.1, World Primary Energy, International Energy Annual 2006, updated August 2009, with projected GDP figures coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Population figures come from a variety of sources, including the U.N. Population Division and national census offices. Information about the developing countries used as examples for comparison come from a wide variety of sources—including Wikipedia, the CIA World Factbook and Nationmaster.

Because the GDP projections used in this study do not extend beyond 2030, I now change our focus on growth of energy and GDP from 2035 to 2030. As almost all of the media coverage given the EIA’s projections use their headline 2035 end-dates, readers should note this.

By combining current data on per capita GDP and per capita energy consumption, we can perform an interesting comparison that may provide more accurate projections. More importantly, we are not obliged to provide a date certain for this growth. It doesn’t matter if their per capita GDP or energy consumption happens in 2020 or 2040—we can say that when their level of economic development reaches a certain stage, it is quite likely that their energy consumption will be near a value that we can estimate today.

Welcome to 3000Quads

Hi all.

I am concerned about the future of energy on this planet. It appears to me as though we are consciously ignoring some brutal realities about how much energy we are going to burn during this century, helped I think by some miscalculations by those charged with forecasting future consumption.

While we’re busy ignoring this, we have been having political battles about climate change, renewable energy, government subsidies and a lot of things related to energy. But because we’re starting off with bad numbers, a lot of the arguments, initiatives and conclusions don’t really mean very much.

I hope to show you how and why in this blog. I hope to see old friends (and even some ‘enemies’) show up here to discuss this. For those who remember me from discussions about climate change, this blog is not about that–or not very much. I may have a Sunday morning post on the subject just to keep my hand in and to give some people a chance to holler at me electronically.

But the bulk of this blog will revolve around one basic equation: The medium range UN forecast for population in 2075 is between 9.5 and 9.9 billion souls. Per capita income is estimated in the IPCC A1 SRES (a scenario of future growth used by many climate scientists and policy analysts) at about $66,500 in today’s money. That means most of the world will be richer than Americans are today. Assuming that there will still be a Bottom Billion amongst us (to our shame), if the 8.9 billion people who are actively part of this miraculous new world are consuming energy at the rate Americans are today (330 million btus per person per year), the world will consume 3,000 quads every year.

That is an amount of energy hard to visualize. Each quad represents the energy liberated from 37.8 million tons of coal, which would fit on a train that was 3,780 miles long.

If that energy need comes to pass and we are forced through inadequate planning to satisfy it with coal, we’re sunk. And yet we are using forecasts for the short and medium term future that assume a much lower rate of consumption.

This poses a problem for us, one I hope to discuss at length.