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25 Years From Now and Still Relying on Fossil Fuels?

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson's picture
Public Agenda
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  • Aug 4, 2013
Coal plant in Alma, Wisc.

Will the energy future look like the present; in this case, a coal plant in Alma, Wisconsin? Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

The federal government’s latest international energy projections are out, and there’s no question we’re living in a time of enormous change—and perhaps remarkably little progress.

The International Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration tries to identify the big trends and projections affecting the energy world through 2040. Some of the trends include:

  • The world is getting hungrier and hungrier for energy, but that’s mostly about China, India and the rest of the developing world. Energy consumption in countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (basically the industrialized world) is expected to go up 17 percent by 2040. Consumption in countries outside the OECD is projected to nearly double. (See related interactive map: The Global Electricity Mix.)
  • Renewable energy and nuclear power are projected to be the fastest-growing energy sources, increasing by 2.5 percent per year. Thanks to new sources opened by fracking, natural gas is projected to be the fastest-growing of the fossil fuels, and by 2040 half of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. will be shale gas.
  • Because of improving technology, the world will continue to get more efficient in energy use, and that will have an impact on greenhouse gases.

Yet for all that, the EIA projects the world’s overall energy mix won’t change much at all by 2040.

EIA_fossilfuels_072813_442Yes, renewables and nuclear are the fastest-growing sources. But overall, the percent of energy produced by fossil fuels will only drop from 84 percent today to 78 percent in 2040. Renewables only grow from 11 percent to 15 percent, and nuclear rises from 5 percent to 7 percent. Liquid fuels drop by 6 percent, largely because of rising prices. And despite all the debate about the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, the overall percentage of those two fuels barely changes at all. Given that picture, we still be pumping out plenty of greenhouse gases. EIA is predicting a 46 percent increase in global warming emissions during the study’s time frame.

There are important differences in what’s happening in developed nations versus emerging ones. For example, even though the EIA is projecting a small 1 percent drop in the share of coal used by 2040, it expects a dramatic increase in coal consumption between now and 2020, most of it coming from the developing countries that need cheap forms of energy to house and feed their growing populations and to industrialize.

Projections aren’t karmic. They depend on taking current trends and best estimates of what will happen if those trends continue. But it’s a fair question: if there’s so much activity around new energy sources, then why don’t the projections look different? Why don’t the changes have more traction?

The answer may lie in the fact that we haven’t, globally speaking, really reached consensus on the fundamentals: What kind of energy sources should we be using? What economic changes are we willing to make to back up those choices?  What are developed nations willing to do to help poorer countries improve their citizens’ lives without depending so heavily on fossil fuels? Those of us living in the developed world have already reaped the benefits of industrialization based on cheap coal. It’s not surprising that developing nations would be tempted to follow the same path—and harder for us to preach to nations that are still building their economies. (See related story: “Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.”)

The fact is that the changes we’re making on energy are working on the margins, and that’s why the long-term projections only show marginal shifts. If you want big shifts, you have to start making big changes—and that means persuading the public that those changes are worth making. (See related story: “Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.”)

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Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Aug 4, 2013

You two are missing the proverbial elephant in the room.  Energy transitions have always taken decades to accomplish and will get even more challenging given the existing magnitude of scale involved.  This holds regardless of any global “consensus”.


Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 5, 2013

Both you and Vaclav Smil have seen rapid energy transitions In the past…

Given Germany’s transformation since only 2011; given France’s energy transformation in the 80’s; given China’s incredible energy build in the last 5 years alone, but certainly in the last decade; Vaclav Smil’s pessimism in the claim that any large energy transformation MUST take decades is much harder to believe

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 5, 2013

I agree to a point, but only to a point. The entire world has changed quite dramatically over just the last twenty years with hardly any guidance at all. When you consider that every portion of the globe truly wants a movement toward clean energy to power their lives, the statement that a world wide change in energy can not be achieved over a two or three decade time frame is wrongheaded, even pessimistic in my opinion.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Aug 5, 2013

So there are big “transformations” in energy use for individual countries.  So what?  The point remains that they don’t affect worldwide fuel mix percentages that much and thus it will take several decades for the rankings to change simply because of the scale involved.  Look at the graphic again.  The closest point to a transition is in the early 2000s when natural gas almost overtook coal, and I would hazard a guess that the explosion of coal usage in China headed this off.  Thus the “transformation” actually had the effect of postponing a “transition”.  What you view as pessimism is a realistic assessment based on history. 

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 5, 2013

For insividual contries, yes, but China is the largest population in the world. Her energy mix changed precipitously in the last decade. Think about what the graph is claiming the ability to do – predict the energy mix 25 years into the future. Why is it that you believe this can be done with any accuracy whatsoever in this time of phenomenal technological change? This year is 2013 and three decades ago was 1983. Could anyone have predicted cell phone, the Internet, robotic surgery, 3d printing etc back then? Is scale not involved with these things as well?

Could anyone have predicted artificial photosynthesis or graphene (two currently emerging and fantastic energy technologies) or that solar or wind would now be giving ANYONE a run for their money? The natural gas revolution was brought on by technology and niether this graph nor any known process can predict transformational technological change in any way at all. This fact makes its value or the value of any prediction of energy trends 25 years from now very limited indeed.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 5, 2013

“Paying for it is another matter.”

EXACTLY.  Political treaties are worth very little if the money to pay for the work involved is not there or if no one profits from the change.  

Now think about other treaties that have brought phenomenal world wide change over a short time frame – NAFTA, GAFTA and the rounds of free trade agreements worked out about decade and a half ago that have brought us globalization like the world has never seen. 

Why the diifference? …Markets. Markets are about the self interests of individuals. Market are stronger than political cooperation treaties any day.

Now ask yourself –  What would happen if a cheap and, more importantly, easy alternative to the current energy paradigm suddenly presented itself? Wouldn’t people flock to it rather than stay with the more expensive alternative? It is my assertion that solar is just on the edge of being that alternative. And I make this assertion with confidence based on what I have seen over the last decade.

I agree that right now, solar is not a player AT ALL. But I’m looking at the cards laid out before me 

– Solar efficiencies rising, but solar cost dropping.

– Super Materials and Nanotechnology advancing exponentially

– Nearly DAILY major discoveries of things on the molecular and quantum level

– Automation and robotics drastically changing the manufacturing world.

if any of these massive changes were happening in isolation, you might be able to somewhat dismiss them. But they are not. They are synergistic. They are working dynamically with each other to create a TERTIARY global change that is now embryonic – an embryo of invention whose mother, as always, is necessity.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Aug 6, 2013

I can see two points where we will have to agree to disagree.  First, I am not persuaded that “phenomenal technological change” will affect energy fuel mix nearly as much as you do and certainly not in the short term.  As I mentioned last month, the key distinction between electrical power generation and many of the examples that you cite is that power generation is mature technology; the major advances in technology have already occurred over the last century.  Second, as an engineer I look at the low power density of wind and solar (to say nothing of their intermittency and variability) and see enormous limitations to utilizing them for generation, regardless of the advancements made (Robert Wilson’s recent post is instructive in this regard).  I can also honestly say I’d love to be wrong, given that I’m interested in free fuel as much as anybody else.  But my education and experience tell me otherwise.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 6, 2013

Mr Voges,

I have nothing but respect for your education and experience in energy production and I thank you for helping to keep our world powered. Because I value your engineering opinion, could you review what I write below and point out obvious flaws?

I don’t know how you define “short term”, sir, but as an engineer, you should be quite amazed at the ongoing phenomenal feats of molecular engineering being ever more rapidly produced by highly regarded chemical engineers the world over.

Yes, power generation is mature, but i consider this point to be irrelevent and something of a straw man since no one is considering fundementally reworking the way power is produced. Yes, power for solar panels is dependent upon the intermittent presence of the sun, and I concede the point to Mr Wilson on LOCAL (the central point) production of solar power in high population density areas.

But please think for a moment about where all fossil fuels originally received their energy.  Wasnt it the sun? If so, could not the biology of all the ancient plants and animals that died to give us all the stored fossil fuels we now use be considered a kind of naturally occuring solar technology?

So far, man has used solar power stored in deposits of long dead biology.  It seems obvious to me that the only challenge left is for man to DIRECTLY produce such fuels.  Do you see this as an insurmountable engineering problem over the given time frame? 

Carbon neutral or carbon NEGATIVE (climate change REVERSING) solar fuel technology is in its infancy now, but like solar cell technology is also advancing on an exponential curve

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Aug 7, 2013

Well aware how fossil fuels have formed.  I’m more than happy to cheer on whoever tries to “directly produce” such fuels, but I’ll remain skeptical since they’ll be competing with fuels that are millions of years in the making.  Along these lines, this is of course why nuclear power should never be discounted, given that there’s a colossal amount of energy given off by the fission process of a small amount of material.  I see nukes as an existential crisis for enviromentalists, solely on the basis of engineering fundamentals.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Aug 8, 2013

Happy to hear that you wish solar fuels success. Actually, solar fuels are already here in several different varieties. All that remains is to make them cost effective – no small task, I know, but given the gravity of climate change, I have no doubt that they will become a reality sooner than you seem to think

Nuclear engineering is great and I’m sure more people would fully embrace it were it not for increasingly unfavorable economic realities, a history of corruption, long build times, the yet to be settled problem of what to do with the waste long term, and an ongoing black swan catastrophe in the pacific plus several others world wide.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on Aug 9, 2013

The authors are brave to base their commentary merely on EIA projections that are known to be notoriously inaccurate.  Nonetheless, given the enormity of the global energy infrastructure it should be surprising to no one that it will take decades to turn things around.  Even a Manhattan-Project style effort to speed our conversion to renewables will still take decades and the building and deployment of those technologies will require energy.  We are, in a sense, trapped and as a result things will get far worse before they get better. 

It’s not clear what is gained by Bittle and Johnson gloating about the predicament.

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