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The Two Most Important Variables for 2030--Part 2


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November 15, 2005

The Two Most Important Variables for 2030--Part 2

Michael Mandel

In the previous post, I looked at war as one of the two determining variables of future prosperity. In this post I will focus on the other key variable, our ability to come up with new energy technologies to meet rapidly growing demand.

It should be clear to everyone that the energy sector is backwards, technologically. Our transportation system is still powered by internal combustion engines, a technology invented in the 1860s. And the biggest energy breakthrough of the past 50 years--nuclear power--has turned out to be a tremendous disappointment, with costs, at best, no lower than other more traditional forms of energy (Generally disruptive technologies need to be 3-5x more efficient than the existing technologies. ompare for example, the difference between computers and manual calculation, or between the telephone and the previous forms of communication, or between airplanes and ground travel).

Technological backwardness of the energy sector creates three problems. First, we depend too much on that black gunky stuff from the Mideast (see my piece here). Second, we face the likely possibility of global warming. And third, there is simply no way using current technologies to meet the growing needs of China and India in an environmentally sound way. (China's per capita consumption of energy is roughly one-quarter that of the industrialized countries, while India's per capita consumption is roughly one-eighth. Over the next 25 years, both can be expected to approach industrialized levels).

So what new technologies can satisfy the insatiable global demand for carbon-free energy? Solar power is probably the best answer, according to an analysis reported on the very readable science blog Cosmic Variance (The original talk and slides, by Nathan Lewis, can be found here)

To summarize Lewis's conclusions (and drawing off his numbers):

Globallly we use about 15 terawatts of energy today, or 15 trillion watts. By his calculations the global consumption of energy will be about 28 trillion watts in 2050, and perhaps 22-25 by 2030 (Lewis does all of his calculations for 2050, but they hold quantitatively for 2030 as well). In theory this energy can be supplied by fossil fuels, at relatively cheap prices.

we have an abundant, relatively inexpensive global resource base of fossil fuels. There are, of course, different geopolitical and regional factors that are certainly going to come into play (and which have historically done so) that will affect pricing of energy, but globally, we have an abundant inexpensive resource base of fossil fuels that will last us for hundreds of years, if we choose to exploit it. Furthermore, at some additional cost, one type of fossil fuel can be convereted into another, so that a limited global supply of one fossil energy resource (for example, oil) could be compensated for in principle by additional consumption of another fossil fuel (for example, coal). And so one can conclude that renewables will not play a large role in primary power generation unless or until some technological breakthrough is achieved, or unless/until some unpriced externality becomes introduced into energy pricing.

Suppose now that we wanted to provide carbon free energy instead, in the massive quantities needed. He walks through the calculations for nuclear power, carbon sequestration, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, biomass, and solar.

Nuclear:

would require the construction of 10,000 new nuclear power plants over the next 50 years, i.e., one every other day somewhere in the world for the next 50 years.

Sequestration:

Burial of gigatons/year of CO2 in the deep ocean will eventually change the pH of the ocean (estimates are that the local pH change will be about 0.1 pH units on a decade timescale) and thereby induce potentially radical ecological change in the biosphere. Sequestration in geological reservoirs is potentially promising, provided that the reservoirs will remain intact. For example, apparently at present approximately over 1 million holes exist from drilling operations in Texas alone. The collective leak rates of the reservoirs must be significantly lower than 1% sustained over a century-millenia-type time scale, because otherwise after 50 years of sequestration the yearly emissions from the reservoirs will be comparable to the emission levels that one was attempting to mitigate in the first place.

Lewis goes on to point out the limits to hydro, wind, and biomass. He argues that:

Solar energy is, in fact, the only renewable resource that has enough terrestrial energy potential to satisfy a 10- 20 TW carbon-free supply constraint in 2050.

Lewis calculates that

The actual land area that is required to produce 20 TW of carbon-free power from solar energy is readily calculated. It is 0.16% of the earth?? surface, or 5x1011 m2.

After discussing possible technological approaches, he makes a recommendation:

one can make a very strong case that the amount of R&D that we need to do in this next 10-20 year period must be significantly higher than what we are doing now, because we do not have the price signals in place to command the R&D from the private sector at the present time nor do we expect to have such in the near future. What we must do is have an informed discussion of how much risk we are willing to live with, and then adjust our level of investment commensurate to being comfortable with that level of risk, with respect to developing globally scalable and economically viable technologies capable of producing 10-20 TW of carbon-free power by the mid-21st century.

01:22 PM

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At the Business Week blog, Economics Unbound, Michael Mandel argues that future economic growth depends most on our ability to develop new energy technologies and on whether there will be a major war. On the first question, my old colleagues at Shell d... [Read More]

Tracked on November 29, 2005 08:13 AM

The economy and technology will solve these problems. As the demand for oil increases, its price will increase. This will prompt people to find other solutions, and most importantly, to conserve more. Technologies will be developed that can?? compete right now with cheap oil. As long as oil is cheap, there is little incentive to invest in other technologies. This will change as the price of oil increases. Most of these technologies will produce less carbon than the combustion of oil, although I'm not sure how important that is. In my opinion, the concern about increasing carbon dioxide is more hype than reality, but these things will become clearer in the future. As one example of solutions, consider nuclear reactors that use a thorium-fuel cycle. It has been reported that this energy source is many times greater than the known coal, oil, and natural-gas reserves of this country, and it produces no carbon dioxide.

Posted by: Bill Spaulding at November 15, 2005 05:01 PM

The problem is more energy produces more heat. The world would become quite warm if everyone used as much energy as the wealthy do currently. Cheap energy could be our worst nightmare. Efficiency holds much more promise than production as it allows to accomplish more with less. Efficiency combined with solar is the best path.

Posted by: Lord at November 15, 2005 08:07 PM

Solar power generation efficiency is accelerating. While the cost/power equation was only improving at 5% a year for decades, new nanotechnologies are emerging that could accelerate that.

Check out a company called Nanosolar.

Also, the 0.16% of the Earth's surface needed to generate the power is about a 450 x 450 mile square, or approx. the size of Nevada or Arizona.

I think technological efficiencies will get that down to only a 200 X 200 mile area needed, or the size of Ohio, by 2015.

This many solar panels can easily be distributed in the American Southwest, the vast Sahara desert, the Namib desert in Southern Africa, Iraq, Israel, the Australian outback, and the Thar desert in western India. Land availability is no problem, as the best places for solar cells (those with hot sun and very few clouds) are among the least habitable places in the world. The solar panels would not 'get in the way' of anyone.

Posted by: Kartik at November 16, 2005 01:33 PM

Time to buy land now?

Posted by: Mike Mandel at November 17, 2005 11:38 AM

Maybe. A few acres of flat, cheap land in Arizona or Nevada might be good.

But if technological efficiencies keep shrinking the number of solar panels needed for each terawatt of power, the amount of land needed relative to the WW supply available might not not be enough demand to cause appreciation, or bring any customer willing to lease the property from the owner..

Countries like Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Australia, India, etc. could earn revenue from vast land that was previously totally useless..

Posted by: Kartik at November 17, 2005 01:28 PM

When it comes to energy, it looks like one source/type fits all nations is a gross misconception. And even within one nation (especially a large one) diversified sources may be the best solution. For a country of large land area its virtually impossible for fossil, wind, geo thermal, solar or nuclear or any other source of energy to monopolize at a cost of other sources and a mix-and-match of numerous types would probably work best. Predominant energy sources in certain parts of the world going in to the next 30 to 40 years could look something like this: The Middle east has plenty of oil and gas which could be their best option till these non-renewable sources run out. They may then opt for solar and wind. Island nations or the ones with long shorelines may choose wind and/or tidal energy. Countries such as India have vast sources of thorium and could go the nuclear Fast Breeder route to sate its energy crunch for many decades to come. The US may very well take a closer look at the tar sands of Canada because with ever increasing oil prices, this option may be becoming commercially viable in the near future. It also provides a potential path for sourcing hydrogen for the fuel cell cars of the future.

Posted by: UR at November 17, 2005 11:11 PM

Everything relating to energy will become portable.Imagine going to your cabin or 2nd home, you are already wired to the grid. Should a brownout or blackout worry you? No. Your vehicle or a small generator the size of a desk top which fits neatly under the trunk where the spare tire used to be will do the job. Simply shut down the grid and plug in your spare supply. By 2020, you should be able to supply your neighbors too. Yes, solar and wind technologies will work but they will be far too costly.

By the time you read this column, one of the major auto makers has already decided there's more money in energy production then in car sales. And he's right.

Posted by: Frank Drake at December 29, 2006 01:18 AM


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