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The Most Important Energy Source for the Future is…

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

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For months I’ve been writing about how hydraulic fracturing is shifting our energy mix from oil to natural gas. From environmental impacts to geopolitics, new horizontal drilling technologies are transforming the 21st century energy landscape.

But the most important energy source for the future isn’t oil or gas – at least, according to Exxon. It’s energy efficiency. And I agree. As Exxon’s new Outlook for Energy points out, the world’s population will grow by 2 billion people by 2040. We will be more urbanized and industrialized and we’ll need a lot more energy to meet demand.

Overall energy consumption will go up 35 percent during that time but it would be far higher without advances in energy efficiencies…That’s everything from more fuel-efficient vehicles, including hybrid cars, to more fuel-efficient power plants. Electricity generation will grow by 90 percent by 2040 but the amount of fuel needed to generate that electricity will only grow by 50 percent.

Not everyone has the same impact when it comes to energy consumption. Consider: On a per capita* basis, the average Texan consumes about twice as much energy as the average American, four times as much as the average person living in the UK, and about eight times as much energy as the average person living in China. Those at the low end of that spectrum are going to want to adopt more energy intense technologies, so all around the world, the focus must be on efficiency.

The UT Energy Poll will be released tomorrow and this wave takes a close look at public opinion on energy efficiency. The new data considers consumer attitudes and behavior, knowledge, and perceptions about the barriers to success. So stay tuned…


* It’s important to note that considerations of per capita consumption can be deceiving. Texas consumes a tremendous about of energy in order to produce energy for other regions. But the message remains the same – impacts are not uniform.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In

Sheril Kirshenbaum About the Author: Sheril Kirshenbaum is Director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin where she works to enhance public understanding of energy issues and improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Follow on Twitter @Sheril_.

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

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  1. 1. Lacota 1:52 pm 04/29/2014

    Hate to state the obvious but energy efficiency is not a source of energy. It is a decrease in demand. Not the same thing by a long shot.

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  2. 2. sethdiyal 3:54 pm 04/29/2014

    Nah not so much when you consider the 75% of energy that is now fossil has to convert to electricity, and the entire 3rd world wants to rise to US consumption standards.

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  3. 3. 29385254 9:42 am 04/30/2014

    I think it would be very difficult to convince a developing country to lower its energy consumption levels without the use of incentives. When a large segment of your populace lives in squalor, environmental issues tend to take a back seat.

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  4. 4. stu64bit14nm4k7in 3:53 pm 05/1/2014

    In the third/developing world, big rises in quality/standard of living can be achieved, via low power consumption devices. LED lighting, tablets, smartphones, powered by cheap solar panels and manganese batteries, no longer do they need the radiation king, boob tubes of old. Simple exploitation of the photo electric effect, going in to the system and coming out of the screen, or bulb. Instead of needing 50W, only 5W is needed, big silicon will replace big carbon. In my house my 39″ UHD Android TV, uses less electricity, than my old cathode ray TV and computer, all while giving me more photons and 32 times the pixels. 6 times the free to air channels, vast amounts of internet video, so much text, I haven’t read a book, in 2 years, newspaper, or magazine in 4. So that the quantum mechanics of the silicon transistors, photo electric effect has already dramatically improved my quality of living, while keeping down my energy consumption. Particularly in respect of my tablet and smartphone, tiny amounts of energy, $2.50 worth of reading glasses, it’s as if, I was watching a 50″ screen.

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  5. 5. 4:10 pm 05/1/2014

    Here is a thought, we do not grow by 2 billion.

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  6. 6. hkraznodar 5:49 pm 05/1/2014

    On the plus side of things, fossil fuels are very toxic and heavily pollute populations that use them. We have seen steadily dropping fertility rates in the USA and Europe due to the impact of pollution. Not the same as decreased birth rates because that is impacted by both fertility rates and use of birth control. The simple fact is that fewer people in high pollution areas can even conceive a child.

    Then we get the particulates from improper disposal of waste from oil production (this means you Koch brothers) causing asthma among small children, a certain percentage of whom will die because of it. Then there are the spontaneous gas explosions that kill people and the oil spills that ruin lives. All of this tends to put downward pressure on populations so eventually as the world “modernizes” there simply won’t be enough to replace the dead and we get lovely negative population growth which will start to ease the burden. Don’t forget; as populations get more crowded it is easier for disease to spread and pandemics to start.

    I’m pretty optimistic about the long term future even if the next 3 decades may be rough.

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  7. 7. hkraznodar 5:55 pm 05/1/2014

    Oops! I forgot to mention the wonderful return on investment of geothermal heat pumps. Get the world started using them and the demand will really drop. You can also force wide adoption of broadband internet in rural and less developed areas via a nice hefty capital tax on the rich. Any property valued over $10 million can get a nice 2% per year tax with no loopholes. Every country in the world would be able to balance their budgets and you would drop travel costs quite a bit.

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  8. 8. bennettWolowitz 6:16 am 05/2/2014

    I have a solution-try to consume less of energy and save as much as possible.

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  9. 9. Braddo 12:12 am 05/6/2014

    Everyone arguing efficiency is the key to a sustainable energy future has not studied the Jevon’s Paradox. If you don’t know that that is, please look it up. There is little doubt that increased efficiency alone does NOT reduce energy usage. It actually increases energy consumption or moves it somewhere else. This is well established. Why do we use more power than ever for lighting, even though lighting is the most efficient it has ever been? Flat screen TVs are far more efficient than CRTs, yet America’s screens are using records amounts of power per capita. Technology made big strides in fuel economy over the last 30 years, but fuel use per capita did not decline until the 2008 economic meltdown.

    Efficiency also has a steep diminishing returns curve.

    Efficiency will not save us unless combined with policies to reduce consumption – ie. increase the cost.

    And why do commentators start with endless world material consumption growth as a given? Scientific American has published good articles showing that is a myth.

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