Millennium Global Challenge No. 13. How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?

Reference: The Millennium Project

Investments into alternatives to fossil fuels are rapidly accelerating around the world to meet the projected 40–50% increase in demand by 2035. The combined global installed capacity of wind turbines, biomass and waste-to-energy plants, and solar power reached 381 gigawatts, exceeding the installed nuclear capacity of 375 gigawatts (figure prior to the Fukushima disaster). The Japanese nuclear disaster has put the future of nuclear energy in doubt, increasing costly safety requirements and reducing public and investor confidence. This, plus the BP oil disaster and the growing awareness of climate change, are accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources. However, without major breakthroughs in technological and behavioral changes, the majority of the world’s energy in 2050 will still come from fossil fuels. Therefore, large-scale carbon capture and reuse has to become a top priority to reduce climate change, such as using waste CO2 from coal plants to grow algae for biofuels and fish food or to produce carbonate for cement. The short-term gainer may be natural gas. Energy efficiencies, conservation, and reduced meat consumption are near-term ways to reduce energy greenhouse gas production. To keep atmospheric CO2 concentration below 450 parts per million (ppm), an estimated $18 trillion investment on low-carbon technologies will be needed between 2010 and 2035. Meanwhile, the world spends more than $310 billion on energy subsidies every year; eliminating these could reduce greenhouse gasess by 10% by 2050.

Global investments in clean energy reached $243 billion in 2010, up from $186.5 billion in 2009. China leads the world in total investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The best-case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that renewable sources could meet 77% of global energy demand by 2050, while the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) claims 100% is possible. Setting a price for carbon emissions will stimulate investments. For the past decade, coal has met 47% of new electricity demand globally. Assuming that countries fulfill their existing commitments to reduce emissions and cut fuel subsidies, The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the world primary energy demand will still increase by 36% from 2008 to 2035, or 1.2% per year, with fossil fuels accounting for over half of the increase. World energy consumption increased 5% in 2010 after shrinking 1.1% in 2009.

IEA says $36 billion/year will connect the remaining 1.4 billion people around the world with electricity. About 3 billion people still rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, and 1.4 million people die every year due to indoor smoke from traditional cooking stoves. The UN has declared 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy and set 2030 for universal access to modern energy sources.

Auto manufacturers around the world are racing to create alternatives to petroleum-powered cars. Mass production of fuel-flexible plug-in hybrid electric cars at competitive prices could be a breakthrough in decarbonizing the transport sector. The global share of biofuel in total transport fuel could grow from 3% today to 27% in 2050. Massive saltwater irrigation along the deserted coastlines of the world can produce 7,600 liters/hectare-year of biofuels via halophyte plants and 200,000 liters/hectare-year via algae and cyanobacteria, instead of using less-efficient freshwater biofuel production that has catastrophic effects on food supply and prices. Drilling and liquefaction of natural gas via integrated ships promises to get more liquefied natural gas (LNG) in less time and cost.

Innovations are accelerating: concentrator photovoltaics to dramatically reduce costs; pumping water through micro-channels on the surface of a solar panel to make it more efficient and make seawater drinkable at the same time; producing electricity from waste heat from power plants, human bodies, and microchips; genomics to create hydrogen-producing photosynthesis; buildings to produce more energy than consumed; solar energy to produce hydrogen; microbial fuel cells to generate electricity; and compact fluorescent light bulbs and light-emitting diodes to significantly conserve energy, which can also be done by nanotubes that conduct electricity. Solar farms can focus sunlight atop towers with Stirling engines and other generators. Estimates for the potential of wind energy continue to increase, but so do maintenance problems. Drilling to hot rock (two to five kilometers down) could make geothermal energy available where conventional geothermal has not been possible. Plastic nanotech photovoltaics printed on buildings and other surfaces could cut costs and increase efficiency. The transition to a hydrogen infrastructure may be too expensive and too late to affect climate change, while flex-fuel plug-in hybrids, electric, and compressed air vehicles could provide alternatives to petroleum-only vehicles sooner. Unused nighttime power production could supply electric and plug-in hybrid cars. National unique all-electric car programs are being implemented in Denmark and Israel, with discussions being held in 30 other countries. Behavior changes and conservation can reduce demand.

Japan plans to have a working space solar power system in orbit by 2030. Such space-based solar energy systems could meet the world’s electricity requirements indefinitely without nuclear waste or greenhouse gas emissions.

Eventually, such a system of satellites could manage base-load electricity on a global basis, yet some say this costs too much and is not necessary with all the other innovations coming up.

Challenge 13 will have been addressed seriously when the total energy production from environmentally benign processes surpasses other sources for five years in a row and when atmospheric CO2 additions drop for at least five years.

Regional Considerations

Africa: Over 70% of sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to electricity. The World Bank’s Lighting Africa initiative mobilizes funding from the private sector to provide affordable and modern off-grid lighting to 2.5 million people in Africa by 2012 and to 250 million people by 2030. The $80 billion Grand Inga dam could generate 40,000 megawatts of electricity, but the project is progressing slowly due to political instability, mismanagement of public finance, and possible environmental and social impacts. Algeria will invest $60 billion in renewable energy projects by 2030. By 2050, some 10–25% of Europe’s electricity needs could be met by North African solar thermal plants.

Asia and Oceania: There are more people without electricity in India (400 million) than live in the U.S. China uses more coal than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined; it also builds more-efficient, lesspolluting coal power plants. It is expected to add generation capacity equivalent to the current total installed capacity of the U.S. in the next 15 years. China invested more than $64 billion (1.4% of its GDP) in clean energy in 2010 and plans to expand its offshore wind turbines to 5 gigawatts by 2015 and 30 gigawatts by 2020. It added nearly 20 million vehicles in 2010 and now produces more cars than the U.S. and Japan, and it could lead the world in electric car production. India will invest $37 billion in renewable energy to add additional capacity of 17,000 megawatts by 2017. Oil and gas production in the Caspian region will grow substantially in the next 20 years; Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan lead the growth in oil and gas respectively. China has 13 nuclear reactors in operation and 25 under construction. India plans to increase nuclear energy’s share from 3% to 13% by 2030.

Europe: 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 roadmap. Germany and Switzerland plan to phase out nuclear energy. Increasing imports of renewable energy from the Middle East and North Africa and natural gas from Eastern Europe seem inevitable. The future pan-European smart grid should allow massive deployment of low-carbon energy supply. A Swedish team certified Italian claims that low-energy nuclear reactions produced sufficiently more energy than consumed over 18 hours to trigger commercial planning. EU plans to have 10–12 carbon capture and storage demonstration plants in operation by 2015. Amsterdam plans to have 10,000 electric cars by 2015. Five geothermal power plants in Iceland supply 27% of the country’s electricity needs. Europe is on track to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Latin America: Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of bioethanol, with 33% of the world market, producing it at 60¢ per gallon and meeting 40% of its automotive needs; 90% of the automobiles produced in Brazil are flex-fuel. Argentina is the world’s second largest producer of biodiesel, with 13.1% of the market. Geothermal, solar, and wind are vast untapped resources for the region, as are gains from efficiencies. Installed wind power capacity in the region is expected to grow by 12.6% per year and reach 46 gigawatts by 2025, with Brazil and Mexico having a dominant share. Ecuador announced that it would refrain from drilling for oil in the Amazon rainforest reserve in return for up to $3.6 billion in payments from industrial countries. Venezuela’s Orinoco heavy oil reserves (requiring advanced production technology) are larger than Saudi Arabia’s reserves. Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have nuclear reactors but have not changed their nuclear policy, while Venezuela froze its plan to develop nuclear energy.

North America: Lesser-known potential clean energy sources in the U.S. include high-altitude wind off the East Coast, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) in the Gulf Stream, solar thermal in the Midwest (four corners), drilled hot rock geothermal, and nano-photovoltaics. The U.S. investment in clean energy increased by 51% in 2010, but the U.S. dropped to third place after China and Germany. 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. San Francisco’s mayor called for the city to go 100% renewable by 2020. Pacific Gas & Electric Company of California agreed to buy 200 megawatts of space-based solar power by 2016 from Solaren. 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.

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