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Where Will Our Energy Come from in 2030?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It may seem slightly ridiculous to consider the prospects for a future solar-hydrogen economy at an institute for theoretical physics in Waterloo, Canada. After all, Canada is the capital of unconventional oil, also known as oil sands, also known as tar sands, which supply more than a million barrels of oil per day to the U.S. And the primary use of today’s existing hydrogen economy—a $200 billion a year proposition—is adding the energetic molecule to such unconventional oils to make them more palatable to the global energy infrastructure.

But rebranded as "artificial photosynthesis," an alternative hydrogen future did get consideration at the Equinox Summit of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative last week. The summit’s effort paired "future leaders" with old-school scientists to imagine an a new energy scenario for 2030, one that would cut greenhouse gas emissions, restrain a global society that relies on burning fossil fuels, and provide modern energy to the billions of people who do not enjoy it today.

That last fact alone argues potentially that the world is going to need a lot more energy, of one kind or another. "The Earth is a 14-terawatt light bulb that is always left on," notes chemist Jillian Buriak of the University of Alberta, who is working on nano-scale solar solutions and helped advise the summit. By 2030, "based on the most conservative numbers, we need 28 to 35 terawatts of power" to provide enough energy for more than 7 billion people.

And whereas the last century’s technologies did achieve wonders, they may not be up to the task of meeting the needs of the present century. "What we learned to do in the 20th century, we learned to drill into the ground to extract petroleum and natural gas, convert it into food and eat the food," adds political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo. That enabled the human population to double twice over the course of the 20th century while agricultural yields increased four-fold. At the same time, global energy use increased 80-fold.

To allow that energy use trend to continue was the main goal of the Equinox Summit. After four days of talks, presentations and work, the votes were in. The future leaders agreed on a course that includes the following: fast breeder and other alternative nuclear reactors, including a thorium-based fuel cycle; geothermal; massive renewable energy installations and grid-scale battery systems; building more energy-efficient cities (as well as retrofitting existing buildings); electrifying transport and using technology to spur better use of public transportation, for example with an app that allows bus-tracking to eliminate unnecessary waiting; and a rural electrification package that would pair flexible plastic photovoltaics with advanced batteries.

Hydrogen did not make the final cut, perhaps because it is largely manufactured by mixing natural gas and high-temperature steam today. Nor did the tremendous challenge of scaling up these technologies to displace fossil fuels enter the debate. Given the technical challenges alone of creating a thorium-fueled reactor that relies on a high-powered proton particle accelerator, that might have proven a death knell for any nuclear result.

Better batteries—or "electricity in a bottle," as chemist Maria Skyllas-Kazacos of the University of New South Wales in Australia puts it—would be the linch-pin of many of these solutions, allowing electric energy to be stored. As it stands, no battery on offer can come anywhere near the energy density of liquid fuels; gasoline stores 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram compared to the best of today’s lithium ion batteries at just 150 watt-hours per kilogram. "It’s never going to achieve gasoline. To say otherwise would just be hype," says battery chemist Linda Nazar of the University of Waterloo. "Nature won’t allow us to go there."

Of course, what matters most is what, if anything, the participants will do in the future. The summit’s conclusions might be presented at venues ranging from the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2012 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver next February. Regardless, the most important contribution of the summit may have been the planting of some of these ideas in the minds of folks who will still be making policy decisions in 2030.

And the most significant transformations may be in the details: better building insulation, vehicles that go further on a liter of gasoline or diesel, and more efficient cooling and heating systems. "The most important energy technology of all is the building," says energy expert Walt Patterson.

After all, if the entire nation of Canada swapped their current furnaces for the most efficient models on the market, natural gas use would plummet and greenhouse gas emissions from burning the gaseous fossil fuel would fall by 40 percent. "There is no renewable energy that will get you 40 percent less carbon on a scale like that," notes environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, who has made a career of studying energy transitions, like the one from wood to coal. "Changing furnaces is an energy transition." And one that needs to be accelerated.

Image: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using EO-1 ALI data courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team





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  1. 1. lmckee 4:43 pm 06/16/2011

    Nuclear power > power for developed countries, not others
    Nuclear power > a value chain that overlaps with nuclear weapons
    Nuclear power > lost opportunity to invest in renewables
    Nuclear power > underworld commerce in radioactive materials
    Nuclear power > more powerful security forces, ubiquitous espionage

    Renewables & effic. > ubiquitous power, middle class, internet, democracy

    Link to this
  2. 2. jcvillar 5:09 pm 06/16/2011

    How about if we make solar water heaters on roofs standard in the building codes for new housing in sunnier climes?

    Link to this
  3. 3. dburjorjee 5:27 pm 06/16/2011

    AECL’s CANDU reactor is perfectly suited to a thorium cycle. In fact there is a current join project with the Chinese to burn thorium fuelled reactors in a conventional CANDU reactor. No need for fancy proton accelerators.

    Link to this
  4. 4. teabone 5:47 pm 06/16/2011

    Where will our power come from in 2030? Stupid question. It will come from Big Oil. No matter what type of energy it is. We will not be rid of the Robber Barons.

    It does not matter if we manage to run our cars on doggy doo, it will be sold to us per gallon at a huge price by whatever company name Big Oil morphs into when they crush all other sources and maintain their domination.

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  5. 5. KiwiBuzz 6:09 pm 06/16/2011

    Speaking generally, new and intermittent renewable energy technologies have no future. They have no future because they are inherently expensive-and unlikely to become substantially cheaper. Certainly not enough to make them competitive. At the moment, they all live on the back of massive direct and indirect subsidies. Cost apart, the main reason why they cannot contribute large scale is that there is no technology available to provide cheap and efficient energy storage for the days, weeks and even months that are needed. (e.g. If you have lots of solar power, and a high demand in the winter, then you need long term storage.)

    Nuclear power can provide all the energy of the world needs into the foreseeable future. As has been mentioned, thorium is a very promising it is three times as abundant as uranium, it has a very much greater burnup and it does not have the weapons potential.

    Small sealed nuclear reactors built in a factory and exchanged when the fuel burns up, also have also have huge potential-especially for small countries and isolated settlements.

    Finally there is now convincing evidence that nuclear radiation is not nearly as dangerous as was thought. Research shows that people are already living in areas with natural radiation about 100 times higher than the assumed safe level. They have no health problems. If this research is upheld and accepted, then radiation fears can be enormously reduced. http://www.radiationandreason.com

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  6. 6. timbo555 7:00 pm 06/16/2011

    Yes T-Bone we know; Big Oil is baaaad! We’ve all seen all the movies since the silly hippie days of the sixties that carry the message that big business is bad in general and big oil is supremely bad in particular. The problem is, that you would most likely not have come into existence, nor would any of those movies, were it not for the evolution of the fossil fuel industry.

    My suggestion is for you to relinquish any reliance on fossil fuels for an entire month. Remember now, that includes ANY product that was manufactured, processed, grown, picked (even your precious "organic" foods rely heavily on fossil fuels), distributed or consumed through the use, however tangentially, of fossil fuels.

    If you’re still alive, which I doubt, I then suggest you get into the oil business yourself; you can start with building a tanker and a refinery from scratch, by hand. Of course you’ll then have to fill the tanker and you’ll have to somehow get it to the refinery. Then make gasoline and sell it at a profit against all of your competitors. It should be easy for a sharp guy like you.

    Or better yet; create, out of whole cloth, and INSTANTANEOUSLY, a brand new source of energy, one that is infinitely renewable and IMMEDIATELY applicable to all the uses described above, along with the hugely adaptable infrastructure necessary to end our reliance fossil fuels .

    This isn’t a conspiracy on the part of "big" anything. We live in a time of un unprecedented R&D around the world, and the best we can come up with so far is the Prius? Are we suddenly going to replace our national fleet we the the Volt, for Chrissakes?

    I have every confidence that we are within fifty years of beginning to have all of our energy needs met for a fraction of the cost they are now, but I do not share your animus for an industry that was instrumental in providing the greatest creation of wealth and prosperity and freedom in history.

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  7. 7. geojellyroll 9:05 pm 06/16/2011

    As a geologist I have no doubt that in 2030, there will be an increase in the percent of energy coming from fossil fuels…especially coal. What matters is what happens in China, india,etc. Everything else is just ‘feel good’ tinkering around the edges.

    There are no ‘magic alternatives’ that are going to make any serious dent in fossil fuels before 2050 or so. Thousands of nuclear plants would have to started NOW to impact use in 2030 and trillions (with a T) invested in wind and solar to NOW to make any difference in 2030. Isn’t happening now and isn’t going to happen soon. Maybe by 2050…maybe.

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  8. 8. scientific earthling 1:39 am 06/17/2011

    Who checks the numbers?
    By 2030 we need to provide for 7G people?
    Current population is 6.9G will be over 7G by 31 Dec 2011. A deliberate understatement.

    Another observation drawing the wrong conclusion: "human population to double twice over the course of the 20th century while agricultural yields increased four-fold. At the same time, global energy use increased 80-fold".

    20th century population increase was mainly in educated nations, where families were educated & remained small. Now charities and UN organisations take food and medicine to the poorest nations on earth. They always ignore the need for education, especially the religion based ones. So now we shall have dramatic growth in ignorant populations. "Save the child, education unnecessary and hell with the adult" is the mantra of choice, it keeps charities and the UN aid programs generating windfalls for the organisers.

    Nature will enforce her solution on a dumb ignorant species: Homo sapien. Nature has no compassion or agenda.

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  9. 9. phalaris 4:09 am 06/17/2011

    At least there’s some realism on batteries in there. It’s been one of the greenies’ standard cop-outs for ages: with just a little bit more money spent on research the perfect battery which is going to solve all our problems will be here. As the expert says: "Nature won’t allow us to go there."
    lmckee : instead of sloganizing, give us some facts. Like how many wind turbines are needed to replace one nuclear power station – say 800Mw rated output? Oh, and tell us where they’re all going to go while you’re at it.

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  10. 10. SteveK9 9:12 am 06/17/2011

    KiwiBuzz pretty much said it for me. Nuclear is the obvious answer. It appears this is not going to be led by the developed world but by the developing world — India, China, Vietnam, UAE, Turkey, etc. In 10-15 years India and China will be exporting technology to smaller, less-developed countries. Eventually the ‘duh’ moment will arrive in Europe and the US and we will all turn to nuclear.

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  11. 11. bewertow 11:15 am 06/17/2011

    @ennui

    Hi there ennui, are you on crack?

    Link to this
  12. 12. denswei 11:26 am 06/17/2011

    All things considered, nuclear is the OBLIVIOUS answer. You have to ignore a lot of economic & technical reality to proclaim it as THE answer to our energy needs. The investment community won’t touch nuclear power unless they get loan guarantees and caps on liability from centralized government planners. They still generate huge amounts of CO2, from the massive amounts of concrete required in construction, during mining operations, etc.
    Not to mention relying on nuclear as THE answer, gets us back to the problems of batteries, since the only nuclear powered vehicles are fictional DeLoreans.
    As illustrated in comments, to make the argument against renewables requires one to myopically base the argument on the state of technology prior to 10 years ago and/or the unit cost of energy produced in experimental or pilot projects. Improving technology and economies of scale has already made solar & wind cost-effective in many parts of the world (when comparing apples to apples, ie, total costs of power, not cherry-picked partial costs).

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  13. 13. ennui 6:57 pm 06/17/2011

    Bewertow, being on crack, thinks that he knows it all.
    Look first at One Terminal Capacitor.
    Then look at the patent at http://www.rexresearch.com/hiddink/hiddink.
    Let us know what your solution is.
    Just because Nasa flubbed an experiment with it, when trying it for propelling a Shuttle and instead causing a big black-out in 2003, you should read a bit more.

    Link to this
  14. 14. ssm1959 11:03 am 06/18/2011

    I have a question. Why does a Thorium based reactor need a particle accelerator when we know they can be seeded by U233? I sense some PC need to sell the public on a "uranium free" nuclear power at play here. Isn’t it enough that the U233 is consumed which we need to anyway. If we are looking for an economic energy solution lets look at using the basic architecture first. We can look to make the machine perfect later.

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  15. 15. Wulfher 11:35 am 06/18/2011

    "It’s never going to achieve gasoline. To say otherwise would just be hype," says battery chemist Linda Nazar of the University of Waterloo. "Nature won’t allow us to go there."

    Lithium air batteries currently being tested have energy densities greater than that of gasoline. Never is typically a silly word to use in science.

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  16. 16. Wulfher 11:39 am 06/18/2011

    I second this opinion.

    Link to this
  17. 17. ennui 12:49 am 06/19/2011

    Obviously a letter written by me, telling how we can generate power at the most economical way by using the invention of Gravity Control, was deleted by someone with interest in the Nuclear, Wind, Solar or Water Industry.
    A Gravity Control Power Plant can generate power @ 1 cent per Kilowatt. "Bewertow" was very upset about that, as he probably gets all this energy for free from?

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  18. 18. eco-steve 6:48 pm 06/19/2011

    Fossil hydrocarbons have a future if they are pyrolysed to produce coke and hydrogen. The coke can be crushed and incorporated in soil as fertiliser, whereas the hydrogen can be burnt to generate electricity. Coal has no future, neither for producing gas or coke. Leave it in the ground.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Angel B. Pal 7:50 am 06/22/2011

    There will be a dramatic reduction of CO2
    with the CONVERSION of FOSSIL (even Nuclear) fuel based electric power plants to resort to renewable energy usage.

    Conversion is by means of a Dependable-Affordable-Durable Air Grid as envisioned by urGEM nature systems technological key which uses Air Fuel as an energy medium contained in the Air Grid that functions like the Electric Grid.

    For lack of space: Unique Features, Uses and Functions are among the info contained in http://www.worldindustry.com

    Link to this
  20. 20. Angel B. Pal 7:55 am 06/22/2011

    There will be a dramatic reduction of CO2
    with the CONVERSION of FOSSIL (even Nuclear) fuel based electric power plants to resort to renewable energy usage.

    Conversion is by means of a Dependable-Affordable-Durable Air Grid as envisioned by urGEM nature systems technological key which uses Air Fuel as an energy medium contained in the Air Grid that functions like the Electric Grid.

    For lack of space:
    Unique Features, Uses and functions are among the many info contained in,

    http://www.urworldindustry.com

    Link to this
  21. 21. Dr. Strangelove 10:12 pm 06/23/2011

    These scientists lacked imagination and foresight. The best alternative fuel to replace fossil fuels for transportation is ammonia. It is clean, cheap and inexhaustible. The specific energy of ammonia is 22.5 MJ/kg that’s 30x higher than lithium ion battery used in most advanced electric cars.

    The emissions of ammonia combustion are nitrogen and water. No pollution. You can make ammonia from air and water. These are also the products of ammonia combustion so you can recycle them forever. Take H2 from water via electrolysis, combine it with N2 from air via the Haber process, and you get ammonia.

    Not only ammonia clean and inexhaustible, it is also cheap. Ammonia is now produced in large quantities but not as fuel at price of $2/MJ vs. $3/MJ price of gasoline.

    We are now literally sniffing the fuel of the future.

    Link to this
  22. 22. Dr. Strangelove 10:16 pm 06/23/2011

    Correction: that’s 2 cents per MJ for ammonia vs. 3 cents per MJ for gasoline.

    Link to this
  23. 23. sofistek 10:27 pm 06/23/2011

    Yet again, wishful thinking takes centre stage.

    "To allow that energy use trend to continue was the main goal of the Equinox Summit."

    It’s impossible for that trend to continue. How long can it continue? Who knows? Probably not much longer but certainly not ad infinitum. How about the scientists meet to try and work out the minimum energy needed to live reasonably comfortable and satisfying lives? Both population growth and overall economic growth (including the useless notion of living "standards") have to end. That’s a given on a finite planet. I just wish, as a species, we’d stop dreaming of the impossible and start working on the possible.

    Nuclear power being the answer? A huge gamble on society remaining stable (for nuclear societies), which will take more than just energy to achieve, even if the energy could be made available. Of course, statistically, we could expect more nuclear catastrophes as nuclear reactors increase in numbers. It seems that people don’t care, though, provided they can continue to live in their dream world.

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  24. 24. alexander99 1:36 pm 06/24/2011

    nuclear is not just a bomb, it’s a time bomb, any way you look at it. anyboby that knows anything about coal knows it is at least as bad or worse (clean coal? come on!) battery power is the holy grail of energy and everybody knows it. I have just applied for a patent that in essence mixes a type of nuclear reactor with a type of battery that generates sufficient heat to power thermoelectric devices so that when the battery is in discharge mode the heat captured increases the output value of the design battery output by a factor of 20. best part yet is that when the battery is in recharge mode the battery gives off sufficient heat that it gives off 18 times the nominal rating off the battery. scalable for everything from cars to trucks to trains to ships to homes to buildings to cities. Smart grid? we no longer need a grid! or oil, or nuclear, or coal, or lng! oh, and yes, i am in deep hiding!

    Link to this
  25. 25. Wayne Williamson 2:43 pm 06/25/2011

    excellent idea…any links on engines powered by ammonia…thanks…

    Link to this
  26. 26. Dr. Strangelove 10:01 pm 06/27/2011

    X-15 the fastest airplane in history was powered by ammonia fuel rocket engine. In the 1940s Belgium used ammonia for their buses. The internal combustion engine can use ammonia fuel with minor modification: higher compression ratio, higher fuel to air ratio.

    Link to this

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