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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Coming Energy Crisis

The Coming Energy Crisis

The decades ahead will probably see an energy crisis so great that it dwarfs the financial crisis that began in 2008.

The reason for the crisis is that global energy demands are increasing, caused by population growth and increased consumption in countries such as India and China; but our production of fossil fuels will not increase enough to keep up with this need. In fact, the global production of oil may soon begin to fall, and the global production of coal may start to decline between one and four decades in the future.

Global oil production rose steadily between 1985 (when it was 60 million barrels a day) to 2005 (when it was about 85 million barrels a day). Since then there has been hardly any increase. Many experts predict that global oil production will soon begin to decline. The thesis that the global demand for oil will soon exceed the supply is the Peak Oil thesis. We know that in quite a few countries, oil production has peaked. For example, the oil production of the United States peaked in the early 1970's, and has declined sharply since then. 

In a country such as Saudi Arabia, 60% of the oil comes from a giant field called the Ghawar field. But the Saudis have resorted to injecting huge amounts of sea water into the field (supposedly millions of gallons a day) to keep it producing at a high rate. If the field follows the typical production history for oil fields (that of a bell-shaped curve), the field's production will soon begin to steadily decline, as will many other oil fields.

But what about coal? The standard forecast for coal (repeated innumerable times) has been that we have hundreds of years of coal. But quite a few recent estimates have challenged this rosy prediction.  A group called the Energy Watch Group predicted in 2007 that global coal production could peak by the year 2022. Dave Rutledge of the California Institute of Technology estimates that by the year 2070 we will have used up 90% of the coal that will be burnt.

If such an estimate is correct, it would presumably be good for the environment, because it would mean that the gloomier predictions of the IPCC regarding global warming would probably not occur. Such predictions are based on the assumption that man's production of fossil fuel will grow unabated.

But if we see both a peak in oil production and a peak in coal production before the middle of this century, there will be a gigantic energy crisis that may include economic depression and possibly even mass starvation. With a growing population and growing consumption, we will need for energy supplies to keep rising steadily, but exactly the opposite may be in store. The shortfall may lead to a crisis which may in the short term be even worse than the global warming crisis. 

What about renewable energy? Won't that make up for the shortfall? Today the World Bank issued a report noting that despite the fact that wind power has grown at a rate of 25% per year since 1990, and solar power has grown at a rate of 11 percent since 1990, renewable energy overall is only growing at a very small rate. Renewable energy (most of which is hydroelectric energy) only makes up about 18% of our energy, and that percentage has hardly increased since 1990. If current growth rates continue, we'll only have a fraction of the renewable energy we need when our production of fossil fuels starts to sputter. 
Here is a graph from the report:

Some optimists imagine that nuclear power may fill the gap, but things don't look very promising on that front. Scientists have been working for fifty years or more to create nuclear fusion (a clean form of nuclear energy), but we are still nowhere close to having a working nuclear fusion reactor. As for fission reactors, their cause suffered a great setback when the Fukushima reactor in Japan suffered a catastrophic malfunction.

We can't wait until the next energy crisis explodes in our face. We have to put the needed renewable energy units in place years before we need them. China is making heroic strides in this area, but the West (including America) lags behind.

What can the average person do? Reduce your energy use and slash your carbon footprint. When you jump in a jet liner to go from New York City to see mountains in some exotic country (when you could have enjoyed mountains in your same state), or when you live in a house of 2500 square feet (when 1000 would have done fine), you are helping to use up our dwindling reserves of fossil fuels. The end result in the future may be a family shivering in a cold house or a family going hungry.