Brother, Can You Spare 22 Terawatts?

Big ideas for the future of energy


The flip side of the climate change conundrum is energy. Burning fossil fuels—coal, oil, gas—produces 80 percentof the world's commercial energy. They also produce 61 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that are thought to be increasing the earth's average temperature. In the past, energy production scaled directly with a country's gross domestic product (GDP). More energy produced more GDP.  But some analysts believe the connectionbetween GDP growth and energy is loosening, which, if true, is good news because it means that fueling future economic growth will be easier to achieve.


However, Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes a sobering analysis of the challenge of supplying adequate energy to the world in 2050. In his article, "On the Future of Global Energy" in the current issue of Daedalus (unfortunately not online), Nocera begins with the amount of energy currently being used on a per capita basis in various countries and then extrapolates what that usage implies for a world of 9 billion people in 2050. For example, in 2002 the United States used 3.3 terawatts (TW), China 1.5 TW, India 0.46 TW, Africa 0.45 TW and so forth. Totaling it all up, Nocera finds, "the global population burned energy at a rate of 13.5 TW." A terawatt equals one trillion watts.


Nocera calculates that if 9 billion people in 2050 used energy at the rate that Americans do today that the world would have to generate 102.2 TW of power—more than seven times current production. If people adopted the energy lifestyle of Western Europe, power production would need to rise to 45.5 terawatts. On the other hand if the world's 9 billion in 2050 adopted India's current living standards, the world would need to produce only 4 TW of power. Nocera suggests, assuming heroic conservation measures that would enable affluent American lifestyles, that "conservative estimates of energy use place our global energy need at 28-35 TW in 2050."  This means that the world will need an additional 15-22 TW of energy over the current base of 13.5 TW.


So where will the extra energy come from? Relying on figures from the World Energy Assessmentby the United Nations Development Program, Nocera looks at the maximum amounts of power that various non-fossil fuel sources might supply. Biomass could supply 7-10 TW of energy, but that is the equivalent of harvesting all current crops solely for energy. Nuclear could produce 8 TW which implies building 8000 new reactors over the 45 years at a rate of one new plant every two days. Wind would generate 2.1 TW if every site on the globe with class 3 winds or greater were occupied with windmills. Winds at a class 3 siteblow at 11.5 miles per hour at 33 feet above the ground. And hydro-power could produce 0.7-2 TW if dams were placed on every untapped river on the earth. Nocera concludes, "The message is clear. The additional energy we need in 2050 over the current 13.5 TW base, is simply not attainable from long discussed sources—the global appetite for energy is simply too great."


Burning coal, gas, and oil could fuel the world in 2050, but the carbon dioxide produced by these fossil fuels would have somehow to be captured and sequestered (CCS) underground in order to prevent it from being vented into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. Some CCS pilot projects have been launched but they are not cheap and they are far from proven.


Given the magnitude of the problem of fueling the future with carbon-neutral energy, Nocera argues that the only real alternative for carbon-neutral energy production is some form of solar power. More energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than humanity uses in a year. But converting sunlight into energy useful to people is a huge unsolved technological problem. In 2000, author Richard Rhodes and nuclear engineer Denis Beller calculated that using current solar power technologies to construct a global solar-energy systemwould consume at least 20 percent of the world's known iron resources, take a century to build and cover a half-million square miles. Clearly a lot of technological innovation needs to take place before solar becomes an option for fueling the world.


The challenge of supplying the world with carbon neutral energy has a lot of people calling for the launching of a "Manhattan Project" or "Apollo Project." What they mean is that the Federal government should dramatically boost research and development spending for novel energy technologies. Let's recall that the Apollo Project absorbed 5.3 percent of the Federal government's budget in 1965. A comparable expenditure would be $136 billion in 2006—that's almost 5 times higher than the Energy Department's 2006 budget. It is also more than the Federal government currently spends on the agriculture, commerce, energy, homeland security, interior, justice and labor departments. Let's also recall that the Apollo program turned out to be a technological dead end that managed to get just 12 astronauts to walk on the moon. Another telling example of Federal bungling in the energy field was the $20 billionwasted on President Jimmy Carter's Synfuels Corporation which was a pilot project that aimed to make oil production from coal commercially viable. It died in 1985.


Maybe Nocera is right that solar power is the way to go, but history teaches us to scrap the Apollo Project model for technology R&D. Federal bureaucrats are simply not smart enough to pick winning energy technologies. Instead, eliminate all energy subsidies, set a price for carbon, and then let tens of thousands of energy researchers and entrepreneurs develop and test various new technologies in the market. No one knows now how humanity will fuel the 21st century, but Apollo and Manhattan Project-style Federal energy research projects will prove to be a huge waste of time, money and talent.


Disclosure: I own 50 shares of ExxonMobil stock. So what!


Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.