Energy Developments

On the basis that ‘Rome was not built in a day’ we might assume that any brave new world of the future will not appear overnight, but rather develop in incremental stages. However, we might assume that any future progress will be dependent on the availability of energy, both in terms of quality and quantity. Today, we might readily understand that energy is big business, which operates at the level of global geopolitics, such that it subjected to many powerful and diverse interests that underpins entire national economies and the profitability of multinational corporations. In addition, the technical complexity surrounding the future of energy production is compounded by the issue of a growing population and finite resources and the climate change debate, such that it is not easy for the average person to always get a clear or unbiased assessment of the future of the energy industry. Therefore, we will start by presenting the graph below  produced by the US Energy Information Administration in 2013, which can be cross-referenced on Wikipedia for more details.

 

This graph shows a breakdown of world energy consumption being projected out from 2010 to 2040, where fossil fuels comprising of coal, oil and gas falls from a combined total of 87% to 79% (-6%), while the sum of all renewable sources increases from 11% to 15% (+4%) and nuclear only increases from 5% to 7% (+2%). However, while this data might suggest a relative fall in the consumption of fossil fuel consumption by 2040, it needs to be highlighted that the upward slope of all 3 fossil fuel curves actually represents a 44% increase in fossil fuel consumption in the future.

Note: The timescale of the graph above aligns to the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , which was formed in 1988. Given the dire warnings in each of its five assessment reports, we might need to reflect on why the use of fossil fuels has increased, rather decreasing, over the last 30 years.

For the moment, we shall simply assume that fossil fuels are not going to disappear from the energy mix at any time soon, at least, not on a global level. Of course, today, some may contest this projection based on the argument that much change has already occurred in energy research and development, even since 2013, which may fundamentally alter the forecast over the next 20 years or so.

What about the additional issues of resource shortages and climate change?

As previously indicated, while we might readily understand that fossil fuels, i.e. coal, oil and gas, must be finite, there is reason to assume that the supply will not be an immediate problem, i.e. within the next 100 years. If so, this would allow time for technology to develop alternative energy solutions. Again, while many might question this position on the grounds of increasing cost, both in terms of exploration and extraction, developments such as the ‘fracking’ of shale oil and gas appears to have countered this immediate concern, although environmentalist might still question this optimism. Of course, this still leaves the issue of man-made climate change to be considered.

Note: The danger of man-made climate change is based on the increasing emission of green-house gases, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). However, the list of green-house gases also includes water vapor (H2O), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons; plus a growing recognition of other climate change mechanisms . However, CO2 emissions associated with burning fossil fuels is the one most often used by the advocates of alternative ‘green’ energy sources.

Whether all the causes of climate change are entirely understood, let alone being accurately modelled , is still an issue of much debate despite the much touted 95% consensus of climate scientists. While this debate is not really the focus of this energy discussion, it is a matter of concern that is often used as an argument for the world to both develop and adopt renewable energy sources, possibly without full consideration of the costs. However, while the case for renewable energy will be outlined in a subsequent discussion, we possibly need to first be a little more specific about the nature of energy.