Advanced 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: iStockphoto.com / Dale Taylor