Global Challenge 13:

How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?

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The world is in a race to make enough safe energy fast enough to meet the growing needs of an expanding and wealthier population. By 2050 another 2.5 billion people (1.7 billion population growth plus 760 million without electricity today) will need electricity, as will new demands from electrification of transportation, heating/cooling, AI, blockchain, and quantum computing. World energy demand is recovering from the impacts of the Covid recession and Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Demand fell nearly 4% in 2020, grew 5.5% in 2021, 0.9% in 2022, 1.4% in 2023, and forecast to average 3.4% per year from 2024 through 2026. Oil and gas prices grew higher than solar and wind energy. Solar is now the cheapest form of electricity in most countries and passing hydropower in total capacity. Battery storage for solar and wind is progressing with such as iron-air batteries.

Although the USA rejoined the Paris Agreement and new commitments were made at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) total fossil fuel consumption (oil, gas, and coal) is likely to continue increasing until the mid-2020s, when fossil fuel demand peaks and begins falling around an average of 2 exajoules per year to 2050. Currently, oil consumption accounts for 32% of the world’s primary energy consumption. Renewable energy capacity grew 50% more in 2023 than in 2022 worldwide (solar accounted for 75% of this growth). Although renewable sources and energy efficiencies are expected to continue to increase, current trends make it unlikely that renewables will fully replace fossil fuels by 2050. Yet, dramatic change is possible; for example, China commissioned as much solar PV alone in 2023 as the rest of the world did in 2022 and increased wind additions by 66%.

The 100% renewable energy movement is rapidly emerging worldwide. Electric vehicles are displacing about 1.5 million barrels of oil every day and potentially 5 million by 2030. About 20% of all new car sales (17 million) are expected to run on electricity 2024 and 50% of sales by 2035.The numbers of electric self-driving and plug-in hybrid cars and cars that run on hydrogen and natural gas are also expected to increase. Development of solid-state lithium batteries could double EVs’ range and lifespan within this decade. Yet, high prices, scarcity, and ethically questionable sourcing of raw materials are pushing the industry to develop a circular battery economy as the first large generation of EVs phases out around 2030. Additionally, more cost-effective if slightly less powerful technologies like lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) and sodium-ion batteries are advancing rapidly. Tesla is developing hydrogen combustion vehicles. If the proposed water-powered engine by Toyota succeeds, it could reduce oil and battery dependencies (The engine uses electrolysis to separate hydrogen and oxygen, using the hydrogen for fuel).

However, if current trends continue, the UN SDGs and Paris goals will not be achieved. As a result, major studies such as those by the International Energy Agency are trying to show how it could be possible to achieve net zero by 2050. Solar and wind energy are now cost-competitive with coal (especially when the cost externalities are considered), and a variety of electricity storage technologies are beginning to be mass-produced to help renewables’ ability to provide baseload electricity. Although renewables are forecast to add 95% of new power generation globally from 2021 to 2026, they are only one third of global capacity in 2024. According to the OECD, nearly 70% of planned additions to the power capacity in G20 countries are for renewable sources, compared with 22% from coal. China continues as the world leader in renewable power generation. However, aversion to nuclear power, has resulted in a steady decrease in its share of electricity production from a high of 17.55% in 1996 to 9.11% in 2023, offsetting most of the gains in renewables. Meanwhile, over 90% of humanity has access to electricity, leaving 770 million without access, down from 1.2 billion in 2010. To provide electricity to all, including an additional 1.8 billion people by 2050 and simultaneous economic growth, capacity will have to grow by 70% between 2020 and 2050.

Massive shifts from coal to natural gas were expected to increase by 80% by 2030; however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine increased European coal demand, and new coal plants under construction in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh may change this forecast. COP26 brought attention to natural gas flaring (emits CO2) and venting (emits methane) and an agreement to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030. Natural gas provides 24% of global energy which uses flaring and venting in its production. It is estimated that if the waste gas from venting and flaring were captured and sold, it could earn $40 billion per year and cut heath costs.

The price of fossil fuels does not include what governments pay to address health costs, environmental damages, and other externalities from the fossil fuel industries; when included, the IMF estimates that the fossil fuel industries receive $5.3 trillion in subsidies per year. And the world still depends on fossil sources for 80% of its primary energy.

Nuclear power produced less 10% of the world’s electricity in 2023, with 439 plants in 31 countries (including Taiwan) the largest five are: U.S. (92 reactors, 94.7GWh), France (56, 61.4GWh), China (55, 52.2GWh), Russia (37, 27.7GWh), Japan (33, 31.7GWh). To meet net zero emission targets Generation IV nuclear reactors are being considered. At least 53 reactors are under construction in 19 countries. Approximately 60% of the operating reactors are past their 30-40-year lifetime raising concerns about neutron embrittlement, cracking of reactor pressure vessels, nozzles, piping, and onsite nuclear waste storage. About 200 commercial reactors are scheduled to be shut down between 2020 and 2040. Only 25 reactors have been fully decommissioned.

Steel production accounts for 8% of global CO2 emissions, and its demand is projected to grow by 30% by 2050. Existing blast furnace capacity could soon be retrofitted with novel closed carbon looping to cut 90% of emissions and save the global industry up to $700 billion per decade, while new demands may be met using more energy-efficient direct-reduced iron and recycled scrap in electric arc furnaces. The cement industry may shift kilns to biofuels and or solar process heat while recycling released CO2 and replacing some clinker with slag from steelmaking.

The ICT industries consume somewhere between 5-9% of worldwide electricity consumption, and, together with the rapid expansion of AI, if current trends do not change, that amount could reach 20% by 2030. Recent technological advances in AI chip designs already offer significant energy savings, as much as 75%, which with widespread adoption, would reduce the growth in global energy demand for ICT.

Interesting ideas in R&D include spray-on photovoltaics for windows and walls, making skyscrapers net energy producers; metal air-breathing batteries; small batteries recharged by body heat and motion; retrofitting difficult-to-replace CO2 emitters for carbon capture and reuse (e.g., methanol for energy, concrete-like construction material, starch for bio feedstock, industrial chemicals, and sugar-based products); solar panel roads and roof tiles; AI to dramatically improve efficiency (of the electric grid, IoT, transportation, etc.); Integrating microgrids and domestic solar into the general grid in an AirBnB-style platform; producing hydrogen from plants instead of CO2 via synthetic biology; microbial fuel cells to generate electricity; halophytes (e.g., algae) for food and liquid fuels production; solar farms focused heat on Stirling engines; solar panels with day/night temperature exchange and rain to augment solar energy; high-altitude (500–2000 meters) wind energy; drilled hot rock enhanced geothermal systems; compact fluorescent light bulbs and light-emitting diodes to significantly conserve energy, which can also be done by nanotubes that conduct electricity; and architectural designs for energy conservation and efficiencies. Longer-range options that could supply abundant GHG-free energy for all, such as hot and/or cold fusion (Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions – LENR is related to cold fusion) and solar power satellites to beam energy anywhere on Earth or near-space, are being pursued more intensively again. SPS is becoming more financially plausible due to lowered launch costs due to re-useable rockets and mass-production of space systems for new mega-constellations, making it more plausible to help reach net-zero pledges by 2050.

  • Commit to a US-China Apollo-like 10-year energy goal with a NASA-like R&D system to achieve it that others can join.
  • Create an international R&D fund for investments in interesting ideas listed above.
  • Eliminate explicit and implicit subsidies for fossil fuels.
  • Periodically publicize country progress on UN Climate Change Agreements.
  • Work with International Renewable Energy Agency to harmonize regulations and standards for more predictable investment conditions.
  • Establish a globally accessible collective intelligence system for energy.

Asia and Oceania: China is forecast to continue as the world leader in renewable energy with 43% growth over the next five years. Its export volume of PV products is expected to exceed $29 billion in the first half of 2023. By 2030 China expects to a third of its cars running on electricity. China tripled investment in solar energy during the first quarter of 2022 to $4.3 billion, while coal remains its primary source. China added 86 GW of solar PV capacity in 2022, which was 45% of worldwide additions. Wind is China’s third largest source of electricity behind coal and hydropower. Nearly 30% of China’s electricity come from renewable sources. By 2030 China plans to meet 57% of its electricity demand from renewables and 86% by 2050. Meanwhile, coal produces the majority of China’s energy; it grew by 4.6% in 2022. China’s annual coal consumption, at about 3.7 billion tonnes, accounts for roughly 66% of its energy demand. The enormous population and economic growth are leading to the higher energy prices and shortages; both renewables and coal continue to grow in China. About 60% of all electric cars sold worldwide were in China.

China and India accounted for 75% of global coal consumption in 2023, meaning together they used three times as much coal as the rest of the world combined, up from a quarter in 1990. India added 13.5 GW of solar PV capacity in 2022, up from 10.3 GW in 2021. Solar energy lighting is already a cost-effective option in off-grid India, even with government subsidies on kerosene. India had 20 operating nuclear reactors and 7 in construction. However, declining economic growth in China is expected to continue through 2030, which will in turn reduce its demand for coal by as much as the volume consumed by Europe in 2023.

According to the ADB, the Asia Pacific regional energy demand could double by 2030, and by 2035 the region will consume 56% of the world’s annual energy output. India has 289 million people without electricity. Nearly 2 billion people in Asia rely on biomass for cooking. Japan imports 90% of its energy demand. By 2030, Japan solar could reach 100GW of installed PV generation capacity, or 11.2% of electricity demand. It is building a large offshore wind farm off the coast of Fukushima and plans to recover and increase its nuclear power to supply about one-fifth of its growing electricity demand by 2030 despite public opposition, due to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Its cumulative solar PV capacity reached 78.8 GW in 2022, which is the world’s third-largest capacity, following China and the U.S. By 2030 South Korea plans to meet its electricity needs with nuclear power 32.4%, coal 19.7%, LNG 22.5%, renewable energy 21.6%, hydrogen and ammonia 2.1%, while reducing its energy demand by 18.6% by 2040 from current projected demand. Currently, it is converting coal power plants to LNG power plants.

Lao PDR aims to supply 30% of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2025. It currently doesn’t have any wind power installed capacity, however, over 3.6 GW of projects are under development. The Laotian Ministry of Planning and Investment announced plans to invest over US$2.1bn for the construction of a 1.2 GW onshore wind power project in southern Laos. The electricity generated will be used locally and exported to Vietnam. Oil and gas production in the Caspian region will grow substantially by 2030; Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan lead the growth in oil and gas respectively. Singapore plans to increase the energy efficiency of buildings by 80% by 2030.

Middle East and North Africa: Oil demand is decreasing while unconventional hydrocarbon production (e.g., shale gas, coalbed methane, and gas hydrates) is increasing as are solar and other renewable energy sources. The EU plans to import hydrogen from the region. Some 10–25% of Europe’s electricity needs could be met by North African solar thermal plants by 2050. Renewable energy capacity is planned to grow to 90GW in the region over the next 10 to 20 years and investments in renewable are expected to reach 34% of total power sector investments by 2028.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Only half of Africa has access to electricity. McKinsey expects 1 billion more Sub-Saharan Africans to gain access by 2040, which would still leave around 500 million without due to population growth. All countries in the region have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement, but lack trillions of dollars to implement them. Renewables grew 4.8% in Africa during 2022. In addition to massive oil reserves along the Gulf of Guinea, Sub-Saharan Africa has considerable natural gas reserves including South Africa with the fifth-largest recoverable shale gas concentration – 11 trillion cubic meters. European and American energy conglomerates are increasingly investing in African LNG and hydrogen. The region has very high photovoltaic power potential and by extension, an ability to produce cheap green hydrogen. There is also capacity to increase hydropower output fiftyfold, and geothermal power from the East African Rift, already accounting for 48% of Kenya’s electricity in 2021, could power 150 million homes according to the World Bank, more than Ethiopia’s, Kenya’s, and Uganda’s combined projected population by 2050. When the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia fully comes online in 2024 or 2025, it alone will double electric generation of that country, and will provide enough clean energy to power not only Ethiopia, but also significant parts of Somalia, Sudan and Kenya. However, Africa will have to build wholly new electricity grids in the cases where affordable off-grid solutions do not suffice. Both approaches will also be vital in providing clean cooking fuel to the 900 million currently relying on wood and charcoal, and thus in preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths from fume inhalation per year. Therefore, tackling the issues of poor governance and corruption hampering infrastructure investments and regulation will be key. Providing African enterprises with the necessary technical and commercial skills is crucial. USAID’s multi-billion dollar Power Africa initiative, the World Bank’s DARES platform, various NGOs, as well as private companies granting funding and expertise are working to accelerate this.

Africa’s abundant reserves of critical minerals have the potential to generate much of this money as high demand for copper, nickel, graphite, and other green rocks turns petrostates into electrostates.  African states and the international community will have to ensure that their mining as well as fossil fuel exploration by MNCs leads to meaningful local revenues that are transparently reinvested into future-proof energies. Harnessing energy will facilitate the emergence of new global hubs for the manufacturing industry and greatly increase the efficiency of agriculture, meaning that governments must prepare for unprecedented waves of urbanization and have the resources to ensure that new economic sectors develop socially and environmentally sustainable.

Europe: Nearly 100% of new car sales in Norway are electric. Renewables grew 8.8% during 2022. Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and Netherlands plan offshore wind installed 150GW capacity. The EU announced it plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 from 1990 levels and increase both its efficiency and renewable energy sources by 27% from 1990 levels by 2030. The European Space Agency is exploring Space Solar Power Satellites to help meet the zero emissions target by 2050. Currently it has reduced emissions by 18.3% since 1990, and is likely to be 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. Renewable sources account for about 13% of the EU’s overall energy consumption today and plans to increase that to 20% by 2020. Sweden has the highest share of renewable energy in total consumption at 46.8% (non-EU Norway has the share of 65%). The EU also will improve energy efficiency 30% by 2030. The new climate and green energy targets, however, do not include legally binding national targets. Instead, member states will have “indicative” target of improving energy efficiency by 25% by 2030. 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 road map. Northern Europe is expected to focus on wind while southern Europe will focus on solar energy. The EC plans to create a single market for industrial carbon management in Europe by mid-century. This would capture and store residual greenhouse gas emissions. Germany and Switzerland plan to phase out nuclear energy, but shutting down Germany’s nuclear power plants and building a safe disposal site for nuclear waste could cost up to 70 billion euros. Finland’s nuclear power plant estimated construction costs grew from $4.5 billion to $12 billion. Sweden is developing a hydrogen-based steel production plant. 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. However, there is some doubt about these numbers after test drillings and international companies withdrew from Poland. Meanwhile, France is opposed to the extraction of shale gas, and the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Bulgaria have suspended drilling for shale gas. Russia is the second largest oil exporter in the world. Although its exports decreased by 3.3% in 2023, they increased to China and India. Oil extraction in the Arctic offshore territories in Russia might peak at 13.5 million tons a year over the next 20 yearsRussia signed a 30-year agreement in 2014 worth $400 billion to deliver gas to China. Due to the U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia and slumping oil prices, a number of joint Arctic shelf development projects have been blocked, high-tech equipment purchases to produce tight oil have been difficult, and Western service companies, which are difficult to replace, are abandoning the Russian market. Six geothermal power plants in Iceland meet 26% of the country’s electricity needs. In 2014, Denmark generated 57% of its electricity from wind power in 2023; it plans to have 50% of its power from renewable energy by 2050 and 100% by 2050. Wind is now Spain’s main electricity source at 34.5%. Shale gas in Central Europe is expected to lower energy prices there within 20 years.

Latin America: A 2023 UNDP report outlined financial policies that could be implemented to help achieve the regions energy-environment goals. The region hosts major fossil fuel reserves as well as great capacity for renewable energy development. Hydropower is already the region’s foremost electricity source (45% vs. 16% globally) and dozens of new plants are in construction and planning amid concerns about climate change shifting rainfall patterns and shrinking mountain snow pacts affecting reliability. Currently underexploited high-altitude areas in the American Cordillera are well-suited to solar thermal energy, and most areas of the region enjoy above-average PV power potential. In 2021, 30 GW of onshore wind power were installed, with Uruguay being the largest per-capita producer globally thanks to an ambitious UNDP-backed scheme. Lucrative offshore potentials in the Caribbean and off Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil lie untapped for lack of technological expertise. The IADB and World Bank are attempting to stimulate geothermal electricity and heat development through annual GEOLAC conferences, yet South America for now still sits on the all but unexplored potentials of the Pacific Ring of Fire, although these could cover up to a third of the region’s primary energy needs.

The region remains a major producer and consumer of biofuels. Around 90% of light-duty vehicles in Brazil are flex-fuel. South American sugarcane-based ethanol is cheaper to produce and thought to be much more effective at reducing net carbon emissions than maize-based US fuels. Brazil continues to be the second-largest producer globally, and Brazil and Argentina are consistently in the top five biodiesel producers. Relatedly, the region is far below the global average in EV sales at just 1.3%, although their share is almost doubling each year.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels account for two thirds of primary energy consumption in the region. Oil is concentrated in Venezuela’s Orinoco belt and offshore in Brazil and Mexico. Venezuela’s production could rebound with better management. Drilling in the Amazon is becoming more problematic as the rainforest nears a tipping point. Natural gas extraction and consumption are slowly declining, yet new developments in Peru’s Camisea fields and Argentina’s Vaca Muerta formation are likely despite the worry that these could become stranded assets past 2030.

North America: The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act provides $370 billion in tax credits over a ten-year term for renewable energy projects and has attracted $100 billion in private sector investments during the first year.  Electricity production in the U.S. in 2023 was 60% from fossil fuels; 19% nuclear energy; 21% from renewable energy sources. Wind and solar accounted for 10%. North America renewables grew 6.3% by the end of 2022. As April 23, 2024, for 39 of the past 47 days supplies of solar, wind, and hydro generated electricity exceeded demand on the grid for California. The U.S. is the largest oil and gas producer in the world and Canada is the fourth largest oil producer. Canada has the second largest oil reserves in the world but also among the most environmentally damaging. The U.S. and Canada had an output of more than 24 million barrels of crude oil per day, more than Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s combined. Growing proportions are derived from unconventional deposits including fracked shale oil and bituminous sands, which both prompt greater environmental concerns than conventional drilling. Similarly, about two thirds of natural gas comes from shale and tight gas. Coal, though in decline, represents 22% of US electricity generation.

Conventional hydropower is the leading renewable energy source in the region, providing over 60% of Canada’s electricity. Wind power has overtaken hydro in the U.S. Photovoltaics are the fastest-growing energy source. The world’s largest solar thermal power plant started operation in California’s Mojave Desert, and Tesla’s $3,500 lithium-ion storage battery to save surplus electricity can help expand the application of rooftop solar energy. Fully electric cars were 5.6% of new vehicle registrations in the USA and 7% in Canada in 2022. The U.S. will provide an estimated $6 billion in tax credits for EVs this year and build a network of 500,000 charging stations cost-to-cost by 2030.

Meanwhile, some 190 of 523 coal-fired power plants in the US have recently closed or are planned to close. California oil producers used nearly 70 million gallons of water for fracking last year.  Lesser-known potential clean energy sources in the U.S. include high-altitude wind off the East Coast, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion in the Gulf Stream, genomics to create plants that produce hydrogen instead of CO2, high-temperature electrolysis (HTE) to produce green hydrogen more efficiently and cost-effectively, using waste heat from other industries or solar thermal collector’s solar thermal in the Midwest (Four Corners CO), drilled hot rock geothermal, and nano-photovoltaics. 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. It is estimated that 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.