Global Challenges Facing Humanity

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13. How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?

In just 38 years, the world should create enough electrical production capacity for an additional 3.3 billion people. There are 1.3 billion people (20% of the world) without electricity today, and an addition 2 billion people will be added to the world’s population between now and 2050. Compounding this is the requirement to decommission aging nuclear power plants and to replace or retrofit fossil fuel plants. About 3 billion people still rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating. If the long-term trends toward a wealthier and more sophisticated world continue, our energy demands by 2050 could be more than expected. However, the convergences of technologies are accelerating to make energy efficiencies far greater by 2050 than most would believe possible today. So the world is in a race between making a fundamental transition fast enough to safer energy and the growing needs of an expanding and wealthier population.

Shell forecasts global energy demand to triple by 2050 from 2000 levels, assuming that the major socioeconomic trends continue. This, they assert, will require “some combination of extraordinary demand moderation and extraordinary production acceleration.” IEA calculates it will take $38 trillion to meet all energy needs for the world between now and 2035, of which 90% of new demand will be in non-OECD economies. By 2035, China is expected to consume nearly 70% more energy than the U.S., although China’s per capita consumption remains less than half that of the U.S. IEA estimates it would cost $48 billion every year until 2030 to ensure universal access to electricity and modern cooking stoves worldwide.

Over half of the new energy generation capacity comes from renewable sources today. IPCC’s best-case scenario estimates that renewable sources could meet 77% of global energy demand by 2050, while World Wildlife Fund claims 100% is possible. The costs of geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass are falling. Setting a price for carbon emissions could increase investments. If the full financial and environmental costs for fossil fuels were considered—mining, transportation, protecting supply lines, water for cooling, cleanups, waste storage, and so on—then renewables will be seen as far more cost-effective than they are today.

Yet, global energy-related CO2 missions increased 1.4% in 2012. Without major breakthroughs in technologies and behavioral changes, the majority of the world’s energy in 2050 will still come from fossil fuels. For the past decade, coal has met 47% of new electricity demand. Assuming that countries fulfill their existing commitments to reduce emissions and cut fuel subsidies, IEA estimates that the world primary energy demand will grow by more than one-third from 2012 to 2035, with fossil fuels accounting for over half of the increase. Emissions associated with this scenario correspond to a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6°C. Therefore, large-scale carbon capture and reuse has to become a top priority to reduce climate change, such as using waste CO2 from coal plants to grow algae for biofuels and food or to produce carbonate for cement. Carbon capture and sequestration could reduce CO2 emissions in industrial applications by 4Gt if 20–40% of facilities are equipped with CCS by 2050. This can be expensive, requiring the introduction of carbon taxes to make it economically attractive.

Global investment in renewables fell 11% in 2012. However, it was still the second most successful year for the global clean energy sector, and the investment is broadening geographically from established market to new ones in Africa, Asia and Latin America. By the beginning of 2012, renewable energy sources (including hydro) supplied about 17% of global final energy consumption and more than a quarter of total global power-generating capacity (exceeded 1,360 GW, including hydro). Seven countries—China, the U.S., Germany, Spain, Italy, India, and Japan—account for about 70% of total non-hydro renewable electric capacity worldwide. However, relying on wind and solar sources for base-load electricity in mega-cities would require massive storage systems, while geothermal would not.

Despite the accidents in Fukushima, IEA forecasts nuclear generation to grow 70% by 2035 beyond today’s capacity. Issues of cost, insurance, and public confidence could counter this forecast. There is still no good solution for the nuclear waste problem. The normal life of a nuclear reactor is 30–40 years. According to the IAEA, there are 435 civilian nuclear reactors online today; about 140 of these are 30 years old and 34 are over 40 years old. Not including military or research reactors, 138 nuclear plants have been closed, but only 17 of these have been decommissioned. About 80 civilian nuclear plants are schedule to be closed in the next 10 years. The Next Generation Nuclear Plant Industry Alliance selected a high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear concept as ensuring no internal or external event could lead to a release of radioactive material.
IEA estimates that global fossil fuel subsidies reached $523 billion in 2011 nearly 30% increase from 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables, encouraging inefficient and unsustainable use. Global oil production forecasts vary considerably, but assuming no major breakthroughs affecting oil production and demand, IEA expects output could reach 96 million barrels per day by 2035 from 89 million today. Non-OECD countries are forecast to consume more oil than OECD countries by mid-2013. The average cost of bringing a new oil well online increased 100% over the past decade.

By 2035, the global passenger car fleet will double, reaching almost 1.7 billion. How will they be fueled? Some see synthetic fuels produced from natural gas, oil shale, or biomass as the bridge to fully electric cars. Mass production of fuel-flexible plug-in hybrid electric cars at competitive prices could be a breakthrough. A six-year U.S. study to test hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles released in 2012 exceeded expectations for fuel economy and efficiency, driving range, and durability. Manufacturers are expected to begin sales between 2014 and 2016. Some argue that the transition to a hydrogen infrastructure may be too expensive and too late to affect climate change. Options like flex-fuel plug-in hybrids, electric, and compressed air vehicles could provide alternatives to petroleum-only vehicles sooner. National unique all-electric car programs are being implemented in Denmark and Israel, with discussions being held in 30 other countries. The global share of biofuel in total transport fuel could grow from 3% today to 27% in 2050. Massive saltwater irrigation along the deserted coastlines of the world can produce 7,600 liters/hectare-year of biofuels via halophyte plants and 200,000 liters/hectare-year via algae and cyanobacteria, instead of using less-efficient freshwater biofuel production that has catastrophic effects on food supply and prices. Nearly two-thirds of incremental gas supply to 2035 could come from unconventional gas, primarily shale gas. However, the process of “fracking” to get the gas might release methane to the atmosphere, pollute groundwater from underground wells to dispose of wastewater, and trigger earthquakes.

Innovations are accelerating: concentrator photovoltaics to dramatically reduce costs; pumping water through micro-channels on the surface of a solar panel to make it more efficient and make seawater drinkable at the same time; producing electricity from waste heat from power plants, human bodies, and microchips; genomics to create hydrogen-producing photosynthesis; buildings to produce more energy than they consume; solar energy to produce hydrogen; microbial fuel cells to generate electricity; low-energy nuclear reactions (related to cold fusion); and compact fluorescent light bulbs and light-emitting diodes to significantly conserve energy, which can also be done by nanotubes that conduct electricity. Solar farms can focus sunlight atop towers with Stirling engines and other generators. Drilling to hot rock (two to five kilometers down) could make geothermal energy available where conventional geothermal has not been possible. Plastic nanotech photovoltaics printed on buildings and other surfaces could cut costs and increase efficiency. Unused nighttime power production could supply electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

Japan plans to have a working space solar power system in orbit by 2030, and China plans to do the same by 2040. Such space-based solar energy systems could meet the world’s electricity requirements indefinitely without nuclear waste or GHG emissions. Eventually, such a system of satellites could manage base-load electricity on a global basis, yet some say this costs too much and is not necessary, given all the other innovations coming up.

Challenge 13 will have been addressed seriously when the total energy production from environmentally benign processes surpasses other sources for five years in a row and when atmospheric CO2 additions drop for at least five years.

Regional Considerations

Africa: In Africa, 66% of land deals cross-referenced by researchers are intended for biofuel production, versus 15% for food crops. Over 70% of sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to electricity. Africa Standard Bank Group plans to invest $1.5 billion in South Africa for most wind and solar projects, $50–75 million in Kenya’s Lake Turkana wind project, and $3 billion in Mozambique’s Mphanda Nkuwa hydropower project. New oil fields have been established in Ghana and Kenya. South Africa has the fifth-largest—485 trillion cubic feet—technically recoverable shale gas. Algeria will invest $60 billion in renewable energy projects by 2030. By 2050, some 10–25% of Europe’s electricity needs could be met by North African solar thermal plants. The $80 billion Grand Inga dam could generate 40,000 MW of electricity, but the project is progressing slowly. Barefoot Power, the winner of the Ashden Awards, will provide energy-efficient, affordable light-emitting diode lamps, home lighting systems, and phone chargers to 10 million people living in off-grid communities in Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and India by 2015.

Asia and Oceania: Nearly 2 billion people in Asia rely on biomass for cooking. India has 289 million people without electricity. All 54 nuclear reactors in Japan went offline in May 2012 for the first time in 42 years. To make up for an electricity shortfall, Japan increased fuel imports, leading to a record $54 billion trade deficit for fiscal 2011. Meanwhile, Japan is building a large offshore wind farm off the coast of Fukushima. China uses more coal than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined; meanwhile, it leads the world in terms of investment in renewable energy sources. China invested $52 billion in clean energy in 2011 and plans to invest $473 billion in the next five years, with the goal of meeting 20% of its total energy demand by wind and solar by 2021. India will invest $37 billion in renewable energy to add 17,000 MW of capacity by 2017. Oil and gas production in the Caspian region will grow substantially in the next 20 years; Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan lead the growth in oil and gas respectively. China had 14 nuclear reactors in operation and 27 under construction by late 2011. India had 20 operating nuclear reactors and 7 in construction. Singapore plans to increase the energy efficiency of buildings by 80% by 2030. Australia has vast renewable energy resources, but the new carbon tax of AU$23 per tonne of CO2, may be too low to stimulate serious change.

Europe: Europe is on track to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. The highest shares of renewable energy consumption in 2010 were in Sweden (47.9%), Latvia (32.6%), Finland (32.2%), Austria (30.1%), and Portugal (24.6%); the lowest were in Malta (0.4%), Luxembourg (2.8%), the United Kingdom (3.2%), and the Netherlands (3.8%). Over 70% of electricity capacity additions in 2011 came from renewable sources in Europe, increasing renewable energy’s share of total electricity capacity to 31.1%. Finland’s new-generation nuclear plant (European Pressurized Reactor) was planned for completion in 2009 but now is not expected to ready even for the revised 2014 target. Conservation and efficiencies could reduce EU’s energy consumption about 30% below 2005 levels by 2050. Low-carbon technologies could provide 60% of energy by 2020 and 100% by 2050, according to the EU’s low carbon roadmap. EU plans to have 10–12 carbon capture and storage demonstration plants in operation by 2015. Germany and Switzerland plan to phase out nuclear energy. Poland imports more than 80% of its natural gas from Russia, but its shale gas reserves may provide Poland with enough gas for more than 50 years. Meanwhile, Bulgaria imposed a temporary ban on the exploration and extraction of shale gas in January. Oil extraction in the Arctic offshore territories in Russia might peak at 13.5 million tons a year over the next 20 years in the most optimistic forecasts, compared with 500 million tons produced today. Amsterdam plans to have 10,000 electric cars by 2015. Five geothermal power plants in Iceland meet 27% of the country’s electricity needs. Demark plans to have 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Some Spanish renewable energy experts are leaving after the government cut financial aid to that sector. Shale gas in Central Europe is expected to lower energy prices there within 20 years.

Latin America: Brazil has been the cheapest biofuel producer for years, but it is losing its competitiveness due to the real’s rise against the dollar and the high price of sugar. Brazil imported 70m liters of U.S. ethanol in 2010, up from just 1 million in 2009. Its first commercial-scale plant of second-generation biofuel (cellulosic ethanol) will start production in December 2013. Some 90% of the automobiles produced in Brazil are flex-fuel. Argentina is the world’s second largest producer of biodiesel, with 13.1% of the market. Geothermal, solar, and wind are vast untapped resources for the region, as are gains from efficiencies. Ecuador announced that it would refrain from drilling for oil in the Amazon rainforest reserve in return for up to $3.6 billion in payments from industrial countries. Venezuela’s Orinoco heavy oil reserves (requiring advanced production technology) are larger than Saudi Arabia’s reserves. Cuba plans to increase its renewable energy production by 12% by 2020. Spain’s electric company was nationalized in Bolivia.

North America: Total US motor gasoline consumption has begun to fall since 2008. Canada has the second largest oil reserves in the world but also the most environmentally damaging. If fully exploited, the total GHG impact could be the tipping point of no return for climate change, argue those opposed to the Keystone pipeline. Nine states in the U.S. generated more than 10% of their electricity with non-hydro renewables in 2011, up from two states a decade ago. The U.S. invested $51 billion during 2011 in renewable sources of energy. For the first time, natural gas has tied with coal for fueling electricity production in the United States. Nearly half of U.S. natural gas production in 2035 will come from shale gas. Lesser-known potential clean energy sources in the U.S. include high-altitude wind off the East Coast, OTEC in the Gulf Stream, solar thermal in the Midwest (four corners), drilled hot rock geothermal, and nano-photovoltaics. BP started production at a new underwater oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico. Algae farms for biofuel may cost $46.2 billion per year to replace oil imports. California requires oil refineries and importers of motor fuels to reduce the carbon intensity of their products by 10% by 2020. San Francisco’s mayor called for the city to go 100% renewable by 2020. Pacific Gas & Electric Company of California agreed to buy 200 megawatts of space-based solar power by 2016 from Solaren. Recycling waste heat from nuclear power plants to home air conditioners and recycling body heat to recharge batteries could reduce CO2 by 10–20% in the U.S.

Graph using Trend Impact Analysis; it is part of the 2012 State of the Future Index computation (See Chapter 2, SOFI 2012)

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