Further Energy Consideration

While there is undoubtedly some truth in the fact that global politics is now driven by free-market capitalism, there is also another, possibly more subliminal, causal effects that requires further consideration, i.e. energy production. In part, a brief reference to the work of Paul Chefurka entitled World Energy to 2050 has already been made - see Obstacles to Progress for more details. However, this author also published another article entitled World Energy and Population that extended the analysis out to 2100. While the previous links allow reference to the details of both works, this discussion will attempt summarise some of the most salient points in respect to the present discussion.

Note: It is highlighted that both articles being referenced were written in 2007, such that we might need to judge and even amend some of the predictions in light of 8-9 years of developments within the energy industry. For example, we might now realise that the arguments surrounding peak oil are possibly more intertwined with the oil price, rather than solely being an issue of available reserves. However, it is believed that the basic premise of finite resources does not change, although predictions concerning the exact date of peak production may need to be modified. Equally, there have been some major technology advances in the field of renewable energy, which have the potential of scalability, although it is unclear that deployment can be achieved in any reasonable timeframe and applied on a global scale, such that the cautionary concerns raised in the articles also still apply. Likewise, the last 8-9 years has seen the publication of many articles on the design of a new generation advance nuclear reactors using thorium as a fuel, as opposed to uranium. While these designs may also hold out the potential for scalability, environmental concerns may delay deployment beyond the effective lifetime of non-renewable resources, i.e. oil, gas and coal. However, despite these more optimistic possibilities, the fundamental problems highlighted in the articles have not disappeared and, as such, the implications on humanity should not be ignored.

For the purposes of this discussion, the accuracy of any specific prediction may not be as important as understanding the validity of the trends being suggested. Therefore, we might jump directly to the projection of energy use, extending out to 2100, and then work back through some of the associated arguments.

Broadly, the chart suggests that all 3 primary non-renewable energy sources, i.e. oil, gas and coal, will reach peak production at some point in this century. However, the analysis by the author also suggests that the decline in these traditional energy sources cannot be matched by the increase in renewable and non-polluting alternatives, such as solar, wind, hydro, to which we will add nuclear. If so, there is an implication that total energy usage must fall to match production, although it may be naive to assume that an equitable 'per capita' reduction will be adopted to accommodate any shortfall. For, in reality, we need to recognise the possibility that major powers in the developed world will simply 'prioritise' their requirements over those of the developing world, irrespective of the wider implications that would follow from such a decision. While the article World Energy and Population does discuss the issue of population in connection with energy production, the following chart is taken from another source, which also shows a population decline in-line with energy production, although the peak production points now appears to be centred around 2040.

The rationale for the population decline, as explained in the article cited above, is directly correlated to the decline in energy production. However, it is possibly worth highlighting the correlation of the population curve, as shown above, with the results of the Limits to Growth model, as shown below. The key difference being that population decline is now linked to 5 inter-related factors, i.e. population, output, pollution, production and resource depletion, which is possibly more reflective of the complexity under discussion.

Again, it is highlighted that the predictions being suggested should only be seen as probabilistic trends rather than implying any certainty of the actual timeframe. So, having establish some of the broad trends in the articles under review, we possibly need to turn our attention towards some of the more detailed arguments, primarily related to energy production. However, in keeping with the general evolutionary scope of the discussions, it might be pointed out that all animals and plants depend on energy, which they generally get from natural sources, i.e. food or photosynthesis, with the notable exception of humans. By way of an illustrative example, humans have reduced the amount of time they spending chewing food by a factor of 10 in comparison to other primates, i.e. from 48% of the day to 4.7%, simply by using energy to cook most of their food. In many respect, this was possibly one of the first steps that humanity would take down an evolutionary road that was to create an ever increasing dependency on external energy. Today, this dependency has possibly reached a critical level, where energy usage can be generally correlated to population and the gross domestic product (GDP).

Examination of the chart above, which covers the last 2000 years of human history, suggests that population growth and energy usage were closely correlated right up to the 20th century. However, following the second world war, we see a notable difference, where economic growth and energy consumption peaked ahead of population due to a massive increase in the use of fossil fuels. This increase in energy consumption has effectively supported a sustained rise in the standard of living, at least, in the developed nations for the last 70 years.

The question now under consideration is whether this model is sustainable in the long-term?

Today, we might generalise the global energy profile as consisting of oil (36%), natural gas (24%), coal (28%), nuclear (6%), hydro (6%) and renewable energy such as wind and solar (1%); where the first 3 sources are defined as non-renewable resources and currently provide 88% of our global energy requirements.

Paul Chefurka: There is of course a great disparity in global energy consumption. The combined populations of China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (2.7 billion) today use an average of just 0.8 toe per person per year, compared to the global average of 1.7 and the American consumption of about 8.0. It is reasonable to expect that a declining world energy supply would affect countries at opposite ends of the consumption spectrum quite differently.

As the last sentence suggests, any significant fall in energy production may pose different threats across the implied spectrum of energy consumption. Of course, those already close to critically low energy usage may not simply be able to survive any further declines. However, should alternative energy sources fail to materialise, then the social infrastructure of even affluent nation states, like America, might begin to breakdown and extend into global conflicts between powerful nation states.

So what other future trends need to be taken into consideration?

With reference to the previous chart, we see how energy consumption has affected both population and GDP in the past. As such, we might expect that any future growth in the global economy, in conjunction with a potential 25% increase in the global population, will only lead to increasing energy demands; possibly in the order of 37% based on the 2014 International Energy Agency (IEA) summary. As indicated, non-renewable sources of energy in the form of oil, gas and coal, currently account for 88% of the global energy demand, but when projected out to 2050, the usage of these non-renewable resource may fall to 67%, although this reduced fraction would now be part of a 37% increase in overall energy demand. On the plus side, the last 20 years have apparently seen proven gas reserves increased by 70% and proven oil reserves by 40%. However, this optimism does not really avoid the issue of peak production of fossil fuels at some point this century.

What other issues may need to be taken into consideration?

In a world of potentially increasing competition for dwindling resources, compounded by regional conflicts and terrorism, the issue of the security of global energy supplies may become increasingly problematic. Today, oil and gas reserves are essentially controlled by a small group of nations, many politically unstable. Currently, 80% of the worlds proven oil reserves are located in just three regions, i.e. Africa; Russia and the Gulf states, while more than 50% of the worlds proven gas reserves exist in just three countries, i.e. Russia, Iran, and Qatar. The fact that some western democracies are dependent on these energy resources, in order to maintain the GDP of their respective economies, may begin to change in the balance of global power and political influence. Of course, in order to alleviate this dependency, some nation states may simply ignore the implications of CO2 emissions on climate change and continue to use fossil fuel for as long as possible, if the promise of large-scale renewable energy does not materialise at commercially viable prices.

But does all this pessimism really account for technology innovation?

By and large, the predictions being presented in this discussion are predicated on models, which have many assumptions and simplifications of the real world. As such, their accuracy often depends on available information and judgement calls, which are then extrapolated onto a future, which will undoubtedly be affected by many unexpected events. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot separate the sum of all possibilities by probability, while accepting that we are not dealing in certainty. Today, the hope for an alternative large-scale energy source is typically characterised in terms of wind, solar, tidal and wave power, although we should also include more established sources in the form of hydroelectric and nuclear power. So, if the dependency on fossil fuels is to be broken, while still meeting any further demand for increased energy, we need to assess the probability that some, or all, of these renewable energy sources can be developed to meet any implied shortfall.

Paul Chefurka: Assessing the probable contributions of renewables to the future energy mix is one of the more difficult balancing acts encountered in the construction of the model. The whole renewable energy industry is still in its infancy. At the moment, therefore, it shows little impact but enormous promise. While the global contribution is still minor (at the moment non-hydro renewable technologies supply about 1% of the world's total energy needs) its growth rate is exceptional. Wind power, for example, has experienced annual growth rates of 30% over the last decade, and solar power is doing about as well, though from a lower starting point. Proponents of renewable energy point to the enormous amount of research being conducted and to the wide range of approaches being explored. They also point out correctly that the incentive is enormous: the development of renewable alternatives is crucial for the sustainability of human civilization.

When attempting to assess the viability of one energy source against another, there are a number of competing factors that have to be taken into consideration. For example, costs may involved risks linked to uncertainty in development and installation timescales plus competitive cost/watt pricing issues, which need to exclude subsidies, while including distribution costs and any eventual decommissioning of power plants. There are also issues of efficiency, both inherent in the conversion to usable electricity and the intermittency of power generation that may depend of weather conditions, e.g. sunshine and wind. So while we might all recognise the disadvantages of burning fossil fuels, we need to understand that the power plants associated with these fuels are a well established technology, where the cost/watt is comparative low in respect to the competition, although resource depletion may come to change this situation. However, the other major uncertainty that many of the renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, need to address is intermittency under peak load demands. For if people want to use energy when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing, the power supply industry requires backup sources of energy, which can be brought on stream quickly. Today, the primarily backup for renewable power is typically fossil fuel power plants, which incurs considerable additional costs, even when operating in backup mode. Likewise, the intrinsic efficiency of solar cells and wind turbine will probably require very large-scale sites, which may often have to be located in difficult or environmentally sensitive geographies, which then need additional power distribution networks in order to connect the renewable power generated to the wider national grid. While such problems are not insurmountable, they will probably present a barrier to large-scale deployment, while fossil fuels continue to be more competitive, i.e. offer low costs to industry.

But should we simply ignore nuclear because it is too dangerous and too expensive?

Let us first consider the important safety aspects of nuclear power plants, which has become an obvious concern to many. To-date, most people will have heard of 3 news-worthy events linked to 3-Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. The 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents were essentially attributed to the old reactor designs of the time and human error, while the Fukushima plant was subject to a natural disaster in the form of a tidal wave. Without going into all the details, nobody was killed at 3-Mile Island or Fukushima due to direct radiation exposure, although 6 people were killed at Fukushima due to non-nuclear causes, such as falling equipment. In fact, there were more deaths at Fukushima resulting from the general evacuation of the area, while also highlighting that over 16,000 people died as a result of the tidal wave itself. In this context, the 1986 Chernobyl accident is the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power to cause fatalities from radiation, which was also attributed to an early flawed reactor design compounded by human error. While the Chernobyl death toll is still debated, most of the affected populations only received radiation doses equivalent to a handful of CAT scans. The actual deaths resulting from relatively low-level doses are difficult to separate from the effects of background radiation, which essentially exists everywhere. However, thyroid cancer is an exception, which is rare in children and there were 7,000 known cases recorded in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine by 2005. As such, there is no doubt that radioactivity from Chernobyl was the cause, which has eventually resulted in more than a dozen fatalities. It is also know that two people died in the actual explosion at Chernobyl and more than 100 people, mostly fire-fighters ignorant of the dangers, were to receive doses high enough to cause acute radiation sickness from which 29 would died within a few months followed by 18 more deaths over a number of years.

Is this not just a whitewash of the real dangers of nuclear power?

While we should accept that each and every one of these deaths was a personal tragedy, which we would wish to avoid, we have to put the numbers into some sort of statistical context. For example, in 2010, there were 22 disasters in the non-nuclear power industry in the US alone, which caused 608 deaths. It is estimated that there are over 1 million road deaths every year worldwide. Possibly even more tragic, it is estimated that 21,000 children die every day around the world, which would equate to over 7.5 million child deaths every year caused by a lack of food, clean water and basic health care. Given what is at stake, if the world does not secure enough energy, the dangers from nuclear power appear almost irrelevant in terms of the statistical risks. On this basis, it is argued that nuclear power should, at least, be considered as a viable renewable option, while recognising that it will come with its own set of practical problems.

Paul Chefurka: In fact, to stay even with the rate of decommissioning of our current nuclear reactor base we would need to build 17 new reactors a year (more than 5 times the number that are now on the books) forever. That seems very unlikely given the capital, regulatory and public relations environments that the nuclear industry is now operating in.

In the decades following the 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, the design of nuclear reactors has gone through a number of generational designs. Today, third generation reactor designs incorporate many improvements to safety, efficiency, and standardization, which has reduced maintenance and capital costs. There are also fourth generation designs in development, which include molten-salt reactors fuelled by thorium rather than uranium, although none are likely to be ready for wide-scale deployment before 2030. While the details of such developments are not really the focus of this discussion, it is possibly useful to highlight the potential for small modular reactor (SMR) designs, which would support much lower entry costs and could be located much closer to areas requiring electrical energy. While some might be alarm at this prospect, the usage of thorium could mitigate many of the safety concerns, especially from terrorist attacks, if such reactors were more widely deployed. The World Nuclear Association has outlined some of the possible benefits:

The thorium fuel cycle offers enormous energy security benefits in the long-term due to its potential for being a self-sustaining fuel without the need for fast neutron reactors. It is therefore an important and potentially viable technology that seems able to contribute to building credible, long-term nuclear energy scenarios.

After studying the feasibility of using thorium, nuclear scientists Ralph Moir and Edward Teller stated:

The advantages of thorium include utilization of an abundant fuel, inaccessibility of that fuel to terrorists or for diversion to weapons use, together with good economics and safety features.

The purpose of highlighting the possibility of renewables, in the form of wind and solar, plus a new generation of nuclear reactors is to show that the world does have potential solutions, which may help to avert any looming energy crisis. However, it is far from certain that any of these solutions will be able to replace the large-scale use of fossil fuel in the timeframe implied by the model under review. If so, probability suggests that nation states will continue to use fossil fuels as long as possible in order to maintain the perception of economic growth, which in turn may be critical to social stability. Although this situation may appear pessimistic, there may yet be an optimistic energy outcome, if politicians come to recognise the scope of the dangers inherent in a global energy crisis and actively start to prioritise wholesale investment in the development of new energy sources, as outlined. However, a more important knock-on benefit of securing the energy requirements of each nation state, or least the powerful ones, could be to reduce global tension and conflict as the competitive demand for fossil fuels would start to diminish.