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Energy Economics: What Will Turn Us On in 2030?

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

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oil-platformsAdvanced lithium-ion batteries may be all the rage for electric cars, but that doesn’t mean one no longer faces drain anxiety when sitting in the audience of an energy conference taking notes on a laptop while a speaker extols their virtues. Sadly, my battery (and at least one other reporter’s) went kaput while attending the “What Will Turn Us On In 2030?” energy conference at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., on October 18.

The conference had good reason for looking into energy issues beyond the relative lifetimes of battery technology. If the 8 billion-plus people on the planet in 2030 want access to modern energy—and want to use it as profligately as I and my fellow Americans do—the world will have to double its current energy supply. That’s at least 14 more terawatts of power needed in fewer than 20 years.

Oh, and we also want that energy not to come with the troubling extras we enjoy today, such as climate change, resource conflict, and general pollution of the air, water and land. We do want the freedom of energy-dense transport with gasoline, lighting and an end to the energy poverty afflicting some two billion people who burn charcoal, wood or dung for light, heat and cooking.

“What energy technology, if any, is going to be scaling up and challenging the towering economics of fossil fuels in 2030?” asked energy wonk Steve LeVine, who convened the conference for the Foundation. (Full disclosure, I moderated a panel at the conference on the government’s role in energy. Yes, we did talk about Solyndra.)

The short answer, based on the consensus view of the many experts on stage throughout the day, is—none.

Think of vehicles. “Why do we want to get rid of oil?” asked former ExxonMobil oilman and current Tufts University business school professor Bruce Everett. “The oil market, for all its problems, does what it’s supposed to do, which is provide affordable transportation.”

Or as Tony Tether, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, put it: “Energy density is what counts.” And with a kilogram of gasoline delivering 35 megajoules, it will be tough for electric cars and their batteries—delivering only roughly 1 megajoule per kilogram—to compete. Think of laptops and then translate that into range anxiety.

In fact, 2030 is only three car model lifecycles from now, which suggests that the major auto manufacturers, such as GM, Toyota and Volkswagen, will continue to churn out vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, with tweaks. “They will be more efficient cars but the majority will be powered by some sort of fossil fuel,” said Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America, which is part of the Volkswagen Group. “There is $2.6 trillion worth of consumer capital in automobiles in the U.S. and it is doubtful that people are going to rush out and throw those away.”

China’s burgeoning middle class of millions will likely take the world beyond two billion cars on the planet over the next few decades—and early indications are that most of those cars will employ the internal combustion engine. Even chemist Jeffrey Chamberlain, who leads the Energy Storage Initiative (read: batteries) at Argonne National Laboratory, agreed: “Will [batteries] supplant or replace the internal combustion engine? That’s never going to happen. Not in my lifetime, my children’s lifetime or even my children’s children’s lifetime.”

Efficiency will increase, as noted, but largely because geopolitics will force it. “Oil is concentrating into the hands of lunatics and other difficult to deal with people,” noted Deutsche Bank oil analyst Paul Sankey. “The average U.S. citizen uses 20 barrels of oil per head per year. Europeans use 10, China uses two, OPEC uses 10…the potential for efficiency gains in the U.S. is enormous.”

Behavior shifts will save some oil, too, such as a military that is less and less wasteful of energy (and thereby saves lives and dollars) or as more people telecommute. “The reason the automobile is popular is because of mobility…Skype gives me mobility” said Edward Chow, a senior fellow in the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The idea that we are all going to commute 30 to 40 miles into a city just to sit and e-mail doesn’t make much sense.”

But saving oil is not necessarily going to help with our other challenges, such as climate change, or even reduce overall fossil fuel use. Switching to electric cars or telecommuting (or both and more) ultimately means more electricity consumption. And the world gets the bulk of its electricity from burning the other two fossil fuels: coal and, more and more, natural gas. Despite rapid growth among renewables—wind and solar particularly—as well as steady contributions from nuclear, electricity production looks no closer than the auto industry to weaning itself from a fossil fuel addiction, particularly in the U.S. and Europe.

In places such as China, the demand for electricity will mean more nuclear—but also more coal. And the current global economic crisis will make it harder for any alternatives to compete, even if high fossil energy prices make their current costs seem less daunting. “Subsidies are going away,” admitted Steven Koonin, undersecretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy, which is also true for European governments.

Hope for technological energy breakthroughs may come in the end from China and other countries outside of the West. China is making a bid to become the world leader in the production of solar photovoltaics, wind turbines and batteries. “Energy alternatives are popping up outside the U.S.,” noted Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. That may mean that cheap solar energy thrives better on rooftops in rural Kenya or India than at utility-scale in the deserts of the U.S. Southwest. “The majority of the world is the biggest buyers of energy in the future.”

Ultimately, most or all of these experts are likely to be wrong—U.S. oil production actually began to tick up for the first time in decades in the last few years. “An expert is the person who can tell you exactly what can’t be done,” explained Diamandis, whose organization will soon fund a prize to turn the CO2 from fossil fuel burning into a useful product, like building materials or soil. “A lot of breakthroughs come from nontraditional sources, people outside the field.”

After all, “gasoline was a waste byproduct of making kerosene to light lamps,” Argonne’s Chamberlain noted and was dangerously dumped before engineers found a use for it in car engines. That said, the list of failed “breakthroughs” is long: fusion, synthetic fuels from coal, ethanol, hydrogen and now, potentially, electric vehicles. And energy saved through greater efficiency has thus far always been consumed—cars today could go further on a gallon of gasoline but instead deliver more horsepower.

What’s needed is the kind of innovation and transformation the mobile phone provided to traditional telephony. “This problem will not be solved by ethics or morals,” Diamandis argued. “We need stuff that is more convenient and better priced. That’s why the cell phone took off.”

Of course, cell phones are leading the charge when it comes to e-waste and the ever-growing energy demands of our gadgets. And each cell phone, despite its size, embodies one-quarter the energy of an ordinary car. By making energy cheap and abundant (again), we might unleash an even bigger bout of the consumption epidemic that’s afflicting the planet.

Image: © / Dale Taylor

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

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

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  1. 1. Dredd 5:28 pm 11/2/2011

    There are other considerations for this equation, such as the peak of oil production, prices, and impacts on society.

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  2. 2. cbarcus 8:44 pm 11/2/2011

    Of course, we could join the Thorium Race by developing Green Nuclear technology, and then synthesize all of the cheap carbon-neutral fuel we require, but…we probably won’t do that because:

    1) nuclear is just too scary, no matter how much better this new high temperature, low pressure, liquid-fuel based stuff is

    2) we don’t believe that energy costs affect the economy in any meaningful way, and that the financial crisis can be solved merely through proper regulation and wealth distribution

    3) renewables, especially solar, will save the day, despite their huge environmental impact at scale, the massive distribution and storage system that will be required (which of course adds significantly to the cost of electricity), and the cost of transitioning to a fleet of a billion+ electric vehicles

    4) because we lack any background in math and physics, we cannot conceive of what is required to provide 16 TW of carbon free energy now, and more than 30 TW in the near future

    5) we believe that notions like peak oil and global warming are merely scientific hoaxes meant to coax the populace into accepting rule under tyranny, and we accept claims of vast conspiracies without ample evidence

    6) we believe some magical energy creating device will be delivered from heaven to save God’s people

    7) the 2nd coming is here, and the righteous will be saved, while all others will perish, so none of this matters!

    8) the powers-that-be want society to fail, and will never allow the people to have the energy that Green Nuclear promises

    9) crisis? what crisis?

    Some background on Green Nuclear:

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 9:17 am 11/3/2011

    In 2030…as a geologist that’s an easier answer…more coal and a higher percent of coal. Everything else is insignificant tinkering around the edges.

    By 2060 or so then nuclear energy will make bigger inroads but fosdsil fuels will still be the driving force behind energy.

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  4. 4. edshaya 4:47 pm 11/3/2011

    This article entirely ignores all of the real and practical developments of the last few year. Solar cells are now under $1/watt and you can have your roof covered in solar cells by companies that do it for no down payment. You instantly start saving money on your next monthly electric bill even including paying off the lease. Wind energy is growing at 30% per year around the world, so starting at a bit less than 2.5% of world energy now, it could be >25% of energy by 2030.

    Electric vehicles plug into a home socket, so every morning they are filled. Anxiety comes from your gas powered car when you get in in the morning and the gauge says empty. Not so the electric ones. I look forward to not wasting time going an extra 4 miles each week to get gas at a price that I can afford. Most of us go less than 40 miles to work and back each day, so the range is already fine, but by 2030 the electric car range will surely be at least 300 miles. If you want to go on a cross country trip, you can add a trailer with a gasoline generator, but there may not be any gas stations left by then; especially if the interstates have inductance coils embedded under the lanes.
    All in all, it is reasonable to assume that wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, bacterial produced alcohol, telecommuting, and superinsolated homes and building will indeed replace fossil fuels entirely.

    Given the costs of extreme weather, ocean rising, and global extinctions, by 2030, the international community will very likely embargo trade to any country that continues to contribute to greenhouse gasses.

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  5. 5. parobinson 7:11 pm 11/3/2011

    Would you elaborate on: “each cell phone, despite its size, embodies one-quarter the energy of an ordinary car”? E.g., does it include wireless infrastructure (cell towers)? I find it hard to believe that it is only manufacturing, delivery and usage. Then again, there is all the sales staff, kiosks in malls, etc – that really pushes the figure up!

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  6. 6. cbarcus 8:52 pm 11/3/2011


    I totally acknowledge the advances in the development of solar energy. Some of them are amazing. And isn’t it nice to be able to install solar panels on your house in areas where it makes economic and environmental sense. Electric cars as well represent an important development, and I think it is great that some consumers can support this technology.

    A major issue arises when we try to scale this kind of solution up to the level needed to address 7+ billion people and 1+ billion vehicles around the globe. How are we going to generate the cheap energy necessary for raising people out of poverty? Right now the reverse is happening- poverty and economic ruin will continue to rise until we address the cost problem. Economic incentives can alter behavior and jumpstart an industry, but if the solution does not work in terms of environmental impact, resource depletion, transmission costs, and net return on energy (higher is better, not just above 1), then it isn’t the one we are looking for.

    Today we do not practice nuclear energy production in a way that represents a real solution. That is why some of us are looking at a very different approach, a high temperature, low pressure, liquid-fuel system (conventional is all solid fuel) that promises low costs through a host of efficiencies.

    I’m not going to get into all of the details here, but it is important to note that this technology is the real deal, it really can address the energy problems that underlie our economic system, it remains the only technology that currently can come close to doing this, and I believe that most of the people who oppose current nuclear technology will find little with Green Nuclear that they object to.

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  7. 7. dwbd 9:50 pm 11/3/2011

    “…Solar cells are now under $1/watt …”

    Current avg cost for Solar installations in the USA is $7.15 per pk watt or optimistically $48k per kw. 10-20X the cost of reliable 24/7, day or night, summer or winter Nuclear Power. See:

    “…you can have your roof covered in solar cells by companies that do it for no down payment…”

    And they will only do in States that offer MASSIVE SUBSIDIES AND Net Metering. A rip-off of money off of the poor, the sick and children to supply enormous subsidies, often >$20k to wealthy home-owners – who can afford $30k solar installations.

    As for Electric Vehicles, I agree. But the perfect way to supply power to Electric Vehicles is dirt cheap nightime Nuclear Electricity.

    “…All in all, it is reasonable to assume that wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, bacterial produced alcohol, telecommuting, and superinsolated homes and building will indeed replace fossil fuels entirely…”

    NO it isn’t reasonable. As-a-matter-of-fact it is a ridiculous & dangerous fantasy to believe that. You are putting the lives of billions at risk by believing in moonbeams and the enchanted forest. See some serious analysis of your fantasy here:

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  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 1:19 am 11/4/2011

    Mr. Biello, your sources lack imagination. What will turn us on in 2030? Plenty.

    Bicycles can replace city driving within 40 km. They are a highly efficient machine. Do you know a bicycle has higher power to weight ratio than a diesel locomotive or a Sherman tank?

    20 kw electric cars for longer driving. A 50 kwhr lithium ion battery will give it a range of 400 km.

    500 kph maglev trains can replace domestic flights.
    Biodiesel from used cooking oil and waste food will replace jet fuel for aircrafts.
    Liquified methane from sewage and municipal waste will replace diesel for ships.
    Offshore wind turbines, solar panels in roofs and road sides.
    Nuclear fusion. If ITER succeeds, we’ll have nuclear fusion by 2033.

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  9. 9. geojellyroll 2:15 am 11/4/2011

    The questioin is ‘what will’…not ‘what might’. Again, the answer is fossil fuels with coal being a higher percent of energy that ever…increasing in the next 19 years as it has in the last decade (doubling over the last decade in China and almost doubling in India).

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  10. 10. edshaya 9:43 am 11/4/2011

    Not sure you can simply extrapolate from the past to understand what will be in 2030. “Solar photovoltaic companies manufactured a record 24,000 megawatts of PV cells worldwide in 2010, more than doubling their 2009 output. Annual PV production has grown nearly 100-fold since 2000, when just 277 megawatts of cells were made.” ( Extrapolating this to 2030 results in 100 – 1000x world capacity in just solar panels. Same goes for wind power. Also, I don’t think Beijing would survive a doubling of their air pollution.

    I should not have left out nuclear. Nuclear will certainly be an important part of the mix in 2030. Hopefully, the old, risky plants will be replaced by the safer designs. Also, the Nation Ignition Facility at LLNL has had a superb series of tests that indicate inertial confinement fusion could be commercialized in the 2020s.

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  11. 11. Dredd 3:45 pm 11/4/2011

    It is ironic that oil is causing so much friction, seeing as how it was designed as a lubricant.

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