subject: Energy gap: Crisis for humanity?
posted: Fri, 27 Jan 2006 03:22:17 -0000


[Not much I can add here really. Well, there's one thing. In all
this talk of energy crises, I haven't seen anyone mention an SPSS yet
- an orbiting solar power station. I mean, that solar cells are
highly inefficient. It seems to me the best place to put some sort
of generator is right next to the sun, not on cloudy Earth. And why
use solar cells? I'm up for boiling some water. In a torus. With a
turbine. Oh - you want no moving parts? That can be done. But it's
a commercial secret right now. And to ship the power to Earth? Laser
or microwave. And where do those beams land? On converted oil
rigs.... far away from everywhere in case they uh, drift. Not to
worry, danger of drift could be fixed with a second carrier beam sent
from the groundstation, if the carrier beam goes down the SPSS stops
streaming power. etc - Stu]

Energy gap: Crisis for humanity?
By Richard Black
BBC News website environment correspondent

It is perhaps too early to talk of an energy "crisis".

But take your pick from terms like "serious concern" and "major
issue" and you will not be far from the positions which analysts are
increasingly adopting.

The reason for their concern can be found in a set of factors which
are pulling in glaringly different directions:

- Demand for energy, in all its forms, is rising

- Supplies of key fuels - notably oil and gas - show signs of decline

- Mainstream climate science suggests that reducing greenhouse gas
emissions within two decades would be a prudent thing to do

- Meanwhile the Earth's population continues to rise, with the
majority of its six billion people hankering after a richer lifestyle
- which means a greater consumption of energy.

Underlying the growing concern is the relentless pursuit of economic
growth, which historically has been tied to energy consumption as
closely as a horse is tethered to its cart.

It is a vehicle which cannot continue to speed up indefinitely; it
must at some point hit a barrier, of finite supply, unfeasibly high
prices or abrupt climate change.

The immediate question is whether the crash comes soon, or whether
humanity has time to plan a comfortable way out.

Even if it can, the planning is not necessarily going to be easy, or
result in cheap solutions. Every energy source has its downside;
there is no free lunch, wherever you look on the menu.

Runaway horse

The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts a rise in global
energy demand of 50-60% by 2030.

If all else remained equal, that rising demand would be accommodated
principally by fossil fuels, which have generally been the cheapest
and most convenient available.

But oil supplies show signs of running down; this, combined with
concerns about rising demand and political instability, conspired to
force prices up from $40 a barrel at the beginning of 2005 to $60 at
its close.

There is more oil out there, for sure; but the size of proven
reserves is uncertain, with oil-producing countries and companies
prone to exaggerate the size of their stocks. Currently uneconomic
sources such as tar sands could be exploited; but at what cost?

Natural gas stocks - in recent times the fuel of choice for
electricity generation are also showing signs of depletion, and there
is growing concern in Western capitals about the political
instability associated with oil and gas supplies from the Middle East
and Russia.

Coal, the fuel of the industrial revolution, remains relatively
abundant; but here the climate issue raises its provocative head most
volubly, because of all fuels, coal produces more greenhouse gas
emissions for the energy it gives.

Based partly on the predicted availability of cheap coal, the IEA
forecasts a 50% rise in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Mainstream climate science, meanwhile, indicates that to avoid
dangerous consequences of climate change, emissions should fall, not
rise, by 50%.

The economic and environmental horses are clearly pulling in mutually
incompatible directions.

No climate curbs

It is a rare human that dons a hair shirt voluntarily; and in seeking
to deal with climate change, we are, it seems, behaving to type.

It took the world's most comfortably-off nations more than seven
years to bring the Kyoto Protocol into force following its signing in
1997.

An alternative "climate pact", the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean
Development and Climate, emerged last year contending that technology
alone would solve global warming.

It recently concluded its first ministerial meeting by endorsing
projections that under its aegis, emissions will at least double by
2050; economic growth is sacrosanct, and so consumption of coal and
other fossil fuels must also continue to rise.

Concern over climate change, then, is not on a global basis proving
to be a driver for clean technology or for reducing demand for
energy.

Price barriers

Rising prices or simply constraints on supplies of fossil fuels
could, however, bring other fuels into the equation; and nuclear
fission is at the head of the queue.

According to the World Nuclear Association, there are now about 440
commercial reactors in the world, providing 16% of its electricity;
for major developing countries such as India and China, nuclear power
remains both a significant part of the electricity mix and a close
companion to military programmes.

But concerns over waste have set other countries such as Germany on a
determinedly non-nuclear path.

Waste apart, nuclear faces another potential obstacle; stocks of
uranium are finite.

Analysts differ over how soon a uranium deficit might emerge; some
believe that a significant ramping up of nuclear capacity would
exhaust economic reserves on a timescale of decades.

That could be extended by adopting "fast breeder" reactors, which
create more fissile material as they go.

Too good to be true? Perhaps, because there is a major downside; the
creation of plutonium, with its attendant dangers of proliferation.

The other nuclear technology, fusion, is full of hope but even its
most ardent supporters admit it is decades away.

Wind, waves and sunlight

Most of the energy we use on Earth comes directly or indirectly from
the Sun.

It is the Sun which stirs winds and the great water cycle, depositing
rain on highlands and creating the potential for hydro-electric
power; it is the Sun's energy which grew plants which decayed to form
the coal and oil that we have extracted so determinedly in our
industrial age.

Is it now time, then, to use its energy directly, to blanket the
Earth in photo-voltaic cells and silently power humankind's future?

Certainly it could be done, with energy to spare; but at costs up to
five times that of coal and gas, it is not going to be soon.

Wind, wave and tidal power are all fine technologies, but their
potential is limited, not least by the fact that they do not generate
continuously.

That could be overcome by storing energy. But there are few realistic
ways of doing it; and the additional cost would quickly negate any
advantage these technologies currently possess.

Hydrogen, meanwhile, is touted as the great climate-friendly hope.

But hydrogen is just a carrier of energy. It must be created, for
example by using electricity to split water molecules, in which case
replacing petrol-driven cars with hydrogen vehicles would vastly
increase the global demand for electricity.

No free lunch, indeed - but a desperately tortuous and risk-laden
menu and a kitchen where political or environmental fires could flare
up at any moment.

[email protected]

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