The nice thing about this year is I get to be a student but I don't have to do the homework or write the papers or take the tests. But there have been a couple of homework assignments that seem like worthwhile exercises, like the one that was due today.
For my Energy and Climate Change course, we were asked to come up with a whole paragraph (!) about where we - as supreme leader of the planet - think the world's energy will come from in 2040.
First - how I came to power:
The year is 2040. Global temperatures have risen an average of 2°C.
Just six years earlier, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) - the world's last climate change denier - left office at the age of 100. The United States Congress finally agreed to sign on to several international climate change treaties. But their actions came too late. Already, nothing remained of Miami Beach but a thin strip of sand; the city itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. In the panic, former Scripps Fellow Laura Krantz wrested control of the government away from President Jenna Bush, took over the UN and began to implement a new energy plan…
Ok. So this wasn't included in what I turned in. But that probably will be when Inhofe retires - pretty sure I'm right about that. Anyway - my actual homework follows.
Supplying the world’s energy in 2040:
The planet will have 9 billion people, consuming twice as much energy as 2015. So where is it all going to come from? Realistically, I don’t think we’ll be off fossil fuels entirely, but I do think they’ll be reduced. And I see a lot of the developing world – with the cooperation and aid of wealthier nations – skipping right over the fossil fuels stage and going directly to renewables, which will have grown exponentially.
25% - 30% of the world’s energy needs will be met by renewables, specifically solar. There’s a tremendous amount of energy from the sun that can be more efficiently captured and, by 2040, storage and distribution technologies will have made it a more reliable and constant source of energy, even in places that don’t get consistent sunshine.
25% will likely still come from oil and gas. The transition to renewables will take time and there will still be technology that’s reliant on traditional fossil fuel sources. But the price tag for these fuels will be higher because they'll actually include the costs of dealing with emissions and air pollution - costs that aren't factored in to 2015 prices. Additionally, recognizing the problems that fossil fuels pose, the majority of governments will no longer be subsidizing these industries.
The remaining 25% will come from nuclear. There was a lot of fear about nuclear in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster but those fears will have faded as the world became more concerned with finding cleaner energy sources. Wealthier countries will benefit most from nuclear technology – it’s too expensive for most developing nations.
It's an interesting exercise and my answer is probably a little too optimistic when it comes to renewables and delusional when it comes to nuclear (I personally think nuclear is waaay better than coal). Fossil fuels are almost certain to still be the main source of energy and, as much as I dislike the idea, that includes the use of coal. The US Energy Information Administration projects that the increase in world energy demands will mean an increase in all types of energy (although natural gas and renewables will see the biggest growth - see below).
What is worth noting is that the chart above is working off the assumption that our rate of consumption will be constant. In other word,s the above chart shows the projected growth of these energy sources based on current consumption levels. So if people were to increase their energy efficiency, it could alter that chart considerably.
One way to force that would be through costs - higher taxes on fossil fuels, higher fuel economy standards. Not exactly a popular idea, especially in this political climate. (But that could change when Miami starts to go underwater.)
The other thing to think about is that there doesn't seem to be a perfect energy source. All of them have pluses and minuses. The problems with fossil fuels are well known. Solar requires using rare earth metals to create the panels - those are limited and pose their own environmental challenges when it comes to mining them and recycling them. Nuclear energy runs on specific elements that a) are limited and b) produce extremely toxic waste that's hard to dispose of. Using wind turbines - as I learned today - can have a big effect on local climate by changing the flow of the atmosphere.
I don't think there's going to be a magic energy bullet or a perfect solution.
It's going to be about finding the right mix and constantly fine-tuning it, as well as increasing our efficiency, to get the greatest amount of energy for the least amount of environmental and social cost.