THE TRANSITION TO ALTERNATIVE ENERGY
In a time of growing concern over climate change, a transition is underway from oil and coal to natural gas and alternative sources of energy. Alternative energy is a linchpin of the Paris accord, which is putting trillions of dollars of investment into cleaner energy, such as solar and wind power, and away from fossil fuels. [i] The exodus from coal, for example, began a decade ago and now generates ten percent less of the global energy supply, while investors may divest completely from coal within five years.
Hydropower, nuclear and biofuels are significant but not growing. In contrast, wind and solar are the most promising energy sources today, growing by 30−50 percent per year on average. New oil discoveries, tar sands and fracking gas from shale are attractive, but limited and contribute to climate change. Nuclear power is being reconsidered in some nations, although enthusiasm has waned with the accident at Fukushima, Japan.
As oil prices rise in the long-term and the cost of alternatives declines, it seems likely that carbon fuels will be displaced as our main energy source in two to three decades. Fong Wan, Sr. VP at Pacific Gas & Electric, said, “We’re seeing the gold rush of renewable energy,” and Chile’s Energy Minister confirms “This is only the beginning of a trend that will accelerate. We’re talking about an infinite energy source.” [ii]
CARBON FUELS ARE VAST BUT IN DECLINE
The future of carbon fuels is being fought over by vast supplies and declining use.
The US Geological Survey and Department of Energy estimate that world oil production will last until 2037, and British Petroleum thinks world oil reserves would last another 53 years, until 2067. Some 95 percent of US energy reserves consist of coal. Coal-fired plants are believed to kill 20,000 to 30,000 Americans each year and dump 50 tons of toxic mercury into the air. [iii]
Gas reserves are thought to serve as a bridge between oil and alternatives for the next few decades and are likely to produce US$1 trillion in revenue while emitting half the CO2 that oil and coal leave behind. After much debate, companies, and environmentalists have reached common ground on regulations for this industry.
Environmental concerns are likely to produce peak oil by 2020 and shrink demand by 23 percent over a 15-year period. [iv]In the EU, renewables are pushing coal plants into a “death spiral” due to higher carbon prices and tougher rules; it’s believed that 97 percent of plants will close rather than suffer a €22 billion loss by 2030. [v]
Despite the pullback of the US from the Paris accords, states have formed coalitions to cut back on carbon fuels and promote green technologies. California requires all new homes to be built with solar panels.[vi]The mayors of London, Los Angeles, Paris, and other major world cities are banning gasoline by 2030 to make their cities cleaner and quieter, boost economic productivity and reduce pollution-related deaths. New Zealand Sweden France, the UK, Canada, and Italy have pledged to end use of coal power in less than a decade and to eliminate all greenhouse emissions by 2050. At the UN Climate Summit in 2017, 19 countries pledged to phase out coal completely. [vii]
British Colombia now requires new coal power plants to emit no CO2, setting the standard for clean coal technology. However, some analysts believe the energy needed to mine and liquefy coal would produce twice the global-warming emissions of gasoline. Many believe clean coal technology is not practical.
WIND IS THE FASTEST GROWING SOURCE
The US Department of Energy thinks wind could provide 20 percent of electricity in the country by 2030, and others estimate that wind power could supply half of the world’s energy needs. Wind energy routinely costs just US$0.02 per kilowatt-hour, the cheapest electricity generation technology available, half that of natural gas. [viii]
In the European Union, wind power generates 18.6 percent of the electricity, and roughlyhalf of Germany’s energy.The wind-energy industry contributed €36 billion to the EU’s GDP in 2016, supported 263,000 jobs, and generated €8 billion worth of exports. [ix]
China, the giant of Asia, now produces more electricity from wind than from nuclear plants, leading the world in generating capacity. The US is the world’s second largest wind-energy producer. The Gemini wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands is one of the world’s largest wind farms, supplying energy for 1.5 million people. The Dutch government plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. [x]
SOLAR TAKING OFF
World solar photovoltaic energy production has grown 45.5 percent annually over the last decade.[xi]Solar is the number-two source of new electrical generating capacity, accounting for 30 percent of all recent additions, and solar capacity will nearly triple over the next five years.
Solar costs are dropping worldwide, with India the lowest at 65 cents per watt. The Indian government will soon exceed the renewable energy targets set at the Paris climate accords in 2015. Solar costs in the US are predicted to drop 66 percent by 2040. An overall drop by 27 percent is expected globally by 2022, about 4.4 percent annually. [xii]
A few major applications stand out:
- Four of the world’s largest concentrated solar power plants are being built in the US. Morocco is constructing the largest in the world.
- Researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimate that covering the nation’s roofs with solar panels could supply about 40 percent of current production.
- The Paris government plans to pave 1,000 km of road with solar panels, supplying enough power to light a small town. Expanded across the country, the technology could supply electricity for 5 million people, or 8 percent of the population. [xiii]
- Solar powered trains are now becoming feasible as technology makes it possible to feed solar electricity directly to train tracks. The Blackfriar’s Solar Bridge in London already helps power trains passing over it, and experimental trains in India utilize solar panels on their roofs. [xiv]
BIOFUELS COMPETITIVE BUT IN DOUBT
Biofuels are a major source of renewables, but there are doubts about its environmental effectiveness. The US Environmental Protection Administration has backed off the nation’s biofuel programs in order to sustain flagging ethanol demand. After a global backlash because biofuel production was shrinking forests, taking over acreage for crops, and raising food prices, EU energy ministers capped biofuels to use no more than 7 percent of food crops such as maize and rapeseed. Concern about deforestation recently lead the EU to phase out imports of unsustainable palm oil by 2020. [xv]
Biofuels consist of 4.3 percent liquid biofuels, 63.7 percent solid biofuels like charcoal, 1.7 percent biogases, and 0.9 percent renewable municipal waste. Nearly all gasoline in the US contains ethanol, typically 10 percent. The Department of Energy plans to replace 30 percent of gas with biofuels by 2030. The US Navy, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Boeing, and others have flown aircraft using biofuels. The Navy has set goals of launching a green carrier group and of using alternative fuels for 50 percent of its energy. [xvi]
Production of biofuels from plant cellulose should grow 20-fold as the first high-volume refineries come online. Novozymes A/S, the world’s largest producer of enzymes used in cellulose conversion, expects to get as much as 90 percent of its revenue from biofuel makers by 2030. Hawaii is bringing the first US biorefinery online. It will turn organic waste into oil, which will be refined into products like gasoline and jet fuel. [xvii]
NUCLEAR POWER RECONSIDERED
Nuclear power is cost-competitive with other forms of energy, almost always operates safely, and could help move the world away from fossil fuels. The World Nuclear Association estimated, “The world’s 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years.” But global nuclear power generation peaked in 2006 and declined nearly 14 percent by 2014. In the US, nuclear peaked in 2010 as the cost of running a nuclear plant rises by 5 percent annually. [xviii]
Following Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster, global leaders set a moratorium on building nuclear plants and called for stronger safety regulations. India and China reaffirmed their nuclear commitments, though with heftier precautions for six reactors under construction. Germany shut down its seven oldest plants and plans to close the rest by 2022, and Switzerland also voted to phase out its five nuclear reactors. Generation 3 reactors are being installed in the US. Asia accounts for the most nuclear power-plant construction, with 20 new reactors currently underway. [xix]
A Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans favored nuclear power, but only 44 percent endorsed building new nuclear plants and 47 percent opposed new construction. A poll sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute found 65 percent of respondents favored the use of nuclear energy in the US, with 60 percent supporting construction of new plants and 76 percent believing nuclear plants were safe. [xx]
More advanced designs are being developed to alleviate these concerns:
- Next-generation reactors use passive cooling systems that do not rely on external power to prevent meltdowns. The pebble-bed reactor is immune to meltdown. Other promising designs include the thorium reactor, the sodium-cooled fast reactor, and the high-temperature reactor.
- Small modular nuclear plants are used to cut capital costs, provide power apart from large grid systems and assure safety.
- A fast breeder reactor recycles spent fuel to cut radioactive waste from 95 percent of the material put into it to 1 percent, increasing efficiency and reducing the disposal problem. China’s first Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor is under construction; India has commissioned two and plans to build six more by 2039. [xxi]
- Transatomic is developing a reactor that could cut costs in half using a molten-salt system that can’t melt down in case of trouble and recycles 95 percent of its waste. Terrestrial Energy in Canada plans to have molten salt reactor online in ten years. [xxii]
- Terrapower is designing a “traveling wave reactor” (TWR) using U-238, a waste byproduct of uranium enrichment. The TWR could extract more than 50 times as much energy from each pound of mined uranium. Bill Gates, who owns the company, recently partnered with the Chinese government to commercialize the technology. [xxiii]
NUCLEAR FUSION IN THE LONG TERM
Long considered the Holy Grail of power, fusion promises an endless supply of cheap energy without pollution. From one 8-ounce glass of seawater, nuclear fusion theoretically could extract energy equivalent to 500,000 barrels of oil. But the technical challenges of containing atomic fires like those burning at the heart of the Sun have long kept it a distant dream. Here are a handful of experiments trying to change the energy game:
Hydrogen-Boron Fusion Because of advances in lasers, a sustainable hydrogen-boron fusion reactor may be developed within the next decade. [xxiv]
ITER Fusion Reactor Reaches Milestone The International Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER) is nearing completion and may generate power by 2025. Founded in 2013, the project is a joint effort of the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, Korea, and Russia. [xxv]
China Sets a Record The Chinese Superconducting Tokamak fusion reactor sustained its superheated plasma for a record-breaking 102 seconds.
Germany The Wendelstein 7-X reactor is designed to operate with super-heated plasma at 80 million degrees Celsius for an eye-popping 30 minutes.
Tri Alpha Energy Breakthrough This company has built a reactor that forms a ball of superheated gas and holds it steady for five milliseconds. Physicist Allan Hoffman at the U of Washington says, “It’s an ideal configuration.”
MIT Possible Breakthrough Advances in magnet technology have made possible a new tokamak design that could increase power output by a factor of 10.
Princeton A US$94-million tokamak upgrade at Princeton will be one of the most advanced reactors worldwide.
Sandia National Laboratories Their “Z machine” uses the most intense pulses of electrical current on Earth to create a magnetic field that crushes a small metallic cylinder filled with hydrogen.
Fuel cells, once considered a promising new energy technology, have lost favor for use in vehicles due to technical issues and the challenge of creating a fuel-delivery infrastructure. Yet, the commercial, military, and industrial sectors remain interested in fuel cells for a variety of purposes. Significant technologies include:
Hydrogen Hydrogen fuel cells can be used to power cars, light-duty commercial vehicles, public transportation, and spacecraft with higher efficiency and less harmful carbon emissions than current technologies. [xxvi]Recent breakthroughs that combine hydrogen fuel cells with solar and supercapacitors could allow building fuel cell vehicles with relatively cheap industrial materials. The technology also would allow cars to generate their own hydrogen, so no new hydrogen infrastructure would be needed. Currently, there are only 39 hydrogen fuel-cell stations in the United States. [xxvii]
Natural Gas Various forms fuel cell use natural gas or biomethane, one of a few renewable natural gas technologies. Natural gas already is used in everything from light-duty commercial vehicles to microgenerators that can provide both heat and electricity. TechCast experts think alternatives are on track to provide 30 percent of all global energy about 2027 +/- 4 years, signaling a serious transition to clean fuels in mainstream use.
Space Battery Nuclear fuel cells such as Idaho National Laboratory’s “Space Battery” are created primarily to power NASA’s deep space probes. These fuel cells are the only way to power deep-space missions, but the plutonium-238 used in them is running short as supplies left over from the Cold War are depleted. [xxviii]
OTHER SOURCES EMERGING
Widespread innovation is producing a variety of new energy sources:
Artificial Leaves Research teams are developing “artificial leaves” that use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. A new bionic leaf is 10 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis. It converts CO2 in the air into alcohol that can be burned as fuel.
Tidal Power Tidal and wave energy are being harnessed in Manhattan, France, Scotland, Nova Scotia, and Northern Ireland. Scotland intends to produce 15 to 20 percent of the country’s energy needs from the sea.
Algae These hardy plants can double in weight several times per day, producing 30 times as much oil as soybeans. Exxon is investing US$1 billion in algae research. DARPA has an algae project that produces jet fuel at US$2 per gallon and is expected reach US$1.
Ocean Thermal Heat engines would harness temperature gradients between 1,000 meters depth and the surface and send electricity to shore via cable.
Geothermal Homeowners are installing geothermal systems for heating and cooling in rising numbers. The US government spent over US$61 million on geothermal projects in schools, hospitals, and government and commercial buildings. Researchers at MIT estimate a US$1-billion project could provide 10 percent of all US electricity.
Sky Wind Power Researchers are developing wind turbines that ride 10 km up in the jet stream to capture 100 times as much energy as ground-based units. Power would be transmitted to Earth on tethering cables.
CONSERVATION ALWAYS GAINING
Conservation and efficiency remain one of the best sources of energy. During the rise of GDP over the past decades, improved efficiency allowed huge increases in energy use without shortages or excessively high prices. The US has saved 40 percent in energy costs over the past 20 years, mainly through improved efficiency.
Energy Authorities estimate that at least 60 percent of all energy in the US is wasted. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy puts it at 87 percent. Amory Lovins believes conservation can reduce energy costs by 75 percent.
Incandescent light bulbs, which waste 90 percent of their energy, are being replaced with LEDs. The European Union phased out incandescents in 2012 and switched to more efficient bulbs, saving 10 to 15 percent of its energy costs. The US Department of Energy is providing US$20 million to develop efficient electric motor technologies, which use one-fourth of the country’s electricity.
MOST LIKELY FORECAST
Carbon fuels supplied 81 percent of all global energy in 2017, the latest date for which figures are available. “Renewable” energy (excluding nuclear) totaled 14 percent of the world’s supply, while “alternative” energy (including nuclear) was 19 percent. Hydro provided 3 percent, nuclear 5 percent, bio 10 percent and solar/wind only 1 percent.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that alternative energy sources will constitute 20−50 percent by 2020. A report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that renewables, primarily solar and wind, could jump from 4 percent of global power generation today to as much as 36 percent by 2035. Amory Lovins believes most vehicles, offices, and homes can be powered with renewables by 2050. [xxix]