World Energy – Where Are We Going?

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I think we’re all a bit curious about the ultimate disposition of the energy industry – both here in the US and around the globe. In the States, 49% of our electricity comes from coal, and the penetration of renewables is under 2%. Worldwide, about 80% of energy for all purposes comes from burning hydrocarbons. So if that’s where we are, where are we going?

In the US, we have a complicated array of vectors in this space. We have constantly falling prices for PV and wind — and promising new technologies coming along right behind them, yet we have a Republican majority in the Senate that has aggressively begun to block all actions that would mitigate global climate change.

So, again, what are the most likely scenarios for change, if any, through the coming decades? I was lucky enough to have received a crystal ball for Christmas that comes in handy on occasions like this; let me pull it out, and I’ll tell you. But first, maybe we should look at a few high-level questions that frame the discussion:

From the standpoint of pure engineering, how much longer will fossil fuels last? It’s clear that unconventional technologies (e.g., shale oil, tar sands, fracking, etc.) will become increasingly important. But will there be a natural limit to the success of these technologies – especially in light of the fact that they too come along with their own environmental consequences? I’ve listened to the reassurances of the oil industry spokespeople — and even they don’t claim the supply will last forever.

On the legal and political front, will society continue to allow the energy industry to pass along the costs of the externalities to its customers now and in future generations? There are many scenarios that could play out here. I know people who predict that, in the long-term, we’ll relive the experience we had with the tobacco industry: a century of business as usual, followed by a few “smoking gun” pieces of evidence (pardon the pun), followed by decades of lawsuits. Under this vision of the future, we’ll come to terms (albeit too late) with the damage to human health and ecosystems that oil, gas and coal have had — both issues that they openly acknowledged at the time, and those they successfully covered up. Everyone will suffer but the lawyers, who will enjoy another enormous payday. Interesting to be sure — but will history prove this right or wrong?

We all assume that the fossil fuel industry will not simply dry up and blow away; in tens of thousands of years of modern human history, there is not a single precedent for big money willingly conceding its power. But what exactly will happen when solar and wind reach and pass “grid parity” in a few years, meaning that the incremental cost of a megawatt of solar electricity costs less than the equivalent from coal? Won’t that change the decision-making process? I want to take lessons in salesmanship from the guy who can get a utility to buy another coal-fired power plant when that decision both damages the world and costs more.

Will the public sector in the US continue to have essentially zero forward thrust behind renewables? Right now, despite the rhetoric, our government’s position in granting subsidies to create artificially inexpensive oil constitutes an all-out attack on clean energy. Will some to-be-named phenomenon cause voters to wake up and make a course correction?

Will there be world events (famines, storms, desertification, extinctions, island submersions, seismic changes in temperature) that will shock the world and convince even the global warming deniers about the nature of the crisis confronting our civilization?

Who will be the big financial winners ultimately? I’ve often written that the world is most definitely going in the direction of renewable energy, despite the catfights of the early 21st Century. As I mentioned, even the oil people have a tough time speculating that we’ll be extracting, refining and burning crude in 100 years — especially that world energy consumption will have grown many times past where it is today. At that time, we will have further developed several ways to harness the small percentage of the sun’s energy (currently 1/6000th) that we need to provide clean energy to everyone on Earth. But who will have done this – and made a fortune in the process?

OK — enough questions. Now for some answers.

Hold on just a second, folks, sorry for the delay. Damn! What did I do with that crystal ball? I know I had it here someplace…

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  1. It will truly take a shock to push the people as well as the governments of the world to seriously consider renewable energy. Currently the the big oil and energy company’s have too tight a hold on the worlds decision makers.

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