Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Getting More from Less

Last week was a case of competing conferences. While I was engaged moderating a panel on alternative energy at the J.S. Herold Energy Pacesetter’s Conference in Stamford, CT, MIT was holding its annual Emerging Technologies Conference in Cambridge. I wish I could have attended both. Technology Review provided this summary of the energy discussions at the MIT event, and it’s worth reading this short item for the way it frames our long-term energy challenges. Specifically, one of the presenters pointed out that, in order to meet forecast demand without permanently altering the climate, we must effectively double total energy production within a half-century, while emitting less than the current quantity of greenhouse gases. That’s a tall order.

Now, there are still a few folks out there who think we can sustain—or even grow—our present levels of oil, gas and coal production for another 50 years, but this is rapidly becoming the minority view. Even the most credible detractors of Peak Oil, such as Dan Yergin and his colleagues at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, have shied away from this sort of “cornucopianism”, as some label it. Their 20-year “undulating plateau” is a far cry from, “Steady as she goes until 2060.”

As the article suggests, the inescapable conclusion--provided you accept the premised growth in potential demand--is that meeting it will require two things in massive quantities: energy efficiency and carbon-free energy. Doubling efficiency sounds especially daunting in light of present US trends toward bigger cars and hungrier gizmos, but when we consider that only 37% of the 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy per year we consume ends up performing the work for which we are paying, it seems more achievable. If we focus on transportation, our current efficiency is below 20%. Doubling that alone would recover almost 9% of our total primary energy usage, the equivalent of 4 million barrels per day of oil.

The zero-carbon portion of this challenge also looks tough at first glance, but we have many options, including technologies that are already commercial or near-commercial, including nuclear and wind, others that are a bit more expensive, such as solar, and the ultimate leverage of being able to sequester the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. But even if you dismiss the risks of climate change, we would need many of these new sources to make up for oil and gas reserves that will have declined, or to which we won’t have access, and to contain the environmental impact of over-reliance on coal.

As Robert Samuelson's column in today's Washington Post points out, all of this must be accomplished against a backdrop of increasing global and US population. The latter is noteworthy, because of our position close to the top of the per-capita energy use ladder. Demographics alone would increase our energy use and emissions 40% by 2050, even without any change in per capita GDP. The EU has an easier task, because its core countries--"Old Europe"--have reached ZPG, the "zero population growth" target that was a buzzword in the sixties and seventies.

While we could argue about whether we wisely used the cheap energy of the last 20 years to expand the global economy, or wasted a generation that could have put us well on our way to meeting our long-term goals, our options going forward are narrowing. The chances of having another 20 years of cheap energy are low, and the environmental risks associated with using it if we did have it are rising. My daughter’s generation will have all the energy it needs, but only if we can navigate our way through the difficult choices of the next decade or so, and avoid the seductive dead ends that will crop up along the way.

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