Future energy development

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Energy development is the ongoing effort to provide abundant and accessible energy, through knowledge, skills and constructions. When harnessing energy from primary energy sources and converting them into ever more convenient secondary energy forms, such as electrical energy and cleaner fuels, both quantity (harnessing more primary energy) and quality (more efficient conversion to secondary energy) are important.

Future energy development faces great challenges due to an increasing world population, demands for higher standards of living, demands for less pollution and a much discussed end to fossil fuels. Without energy, the world's entire industrialised infrastructure would collapse; agriculture, transportation, waste collection, information technology, communications and much of the prerequisites that a developed nation takes for granted. A shortage of the energy needed to sustain this infrastructure could lead to a Malthusian catastrophe. Image:Earthlights dmsp.jpg


General considerations

All the energy we consume is generated by using the four fundamental interactions of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force to create work. Fission energy and fusion energy are generated by electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force. Most forms of terrestrial energy can be traced back to fusion reaction inside the sun, with the exception of tidal power, geothermal energy and nuclear power. Geothermal energy is believed to be generated primarily by radioactive decay inside the Earth[2]. Radioactive decay energy is generated by both the weak nuclear force and electromagnetic force. Tidal energy comes from the gravity energy and kinetic energy of the Earth/Moon system.

Most human energy sources today use energy from sunlight, either directly like solar cells or in stored forms like fossil fuels. Once the stored forms are used up (assuming no contribution from the three previous energy sources and no energy from space exploration) then the long-term energy usage of humanity is limited to that from the sunlight falling on Earth. The total energy consumption of humanity today is equivalent to about 0.1-0.01% of that. But humanity cannot exploit most of this energy since it also provides the energy for almost all other lifeforms and drives the weather cycle [3][4].

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World energy production by source: Oil 40%, natural gas 22.5%, coal 23.3%, hydroelectric 7.0%, nuclear 6.5%, biomass and other 0.7% [5]. In the U.S., transportation accounted for 28% of all energy use and 70% of petroleum use in 2001; 97% of transportation fuel was petroleum [6].

The United Nations projects that world population will stabilize in 2075 at nine billion due to the demographic transition. Birth rates are now falling in most developing nations and the population would decrease in several developed nations if there was no immigration [7]. Still, economic growth probably requires a continued increase in energy consumption. Since 1970, each 1% increase in the Gross world product has yielded a 0.64% increase in energy consumption [8].

In geology, resources refer to the amount of a specific substance that may be present in a deposit. This definition does not take into account the economic feasibility of exploitation or the fact that resources may not be recoverable using current technology. Reserves constitute those resources that are recoverable using current technology. They can be recovered economically under current market conditions. This definition takes into account current mining technology and the economics of recovery, including mining and transport costs, government royalties and current market prices. Reserves decrease when prices are too low for some of the substance to be recovered economically, and increase when higher prices make more of the substance economically recoverable. Neither of these terms consider the energy required for exploitation (except as reflected in economic costs) or whether there is a net energy gain or loss.

Energy production usually requires an energy investment. Drilling for oil or building a wind power plant requires energy. The fossil fuel resources (see above) that are left are often increasingly more difficult to extract and convert. They may thus require increasingly higher energy investments. If the investment is greater than the energy produced, then the fossil resource is no longer an energy source. This means that a large part of the fossil fuel resources and especially the non-conventional ones cannot be used for energy production today. Such resources may still be exploited economically in order to produce raw materials for plastics, fertilizers or even transportation fuel but now more energy is consumed than produced. (They then become similar to ordinary mining reserves, economically recoverable but not net positive energy sources.) New technology may ameliorate this problem if it can lower the energy investment required to extract and convert the resources.

The classification of energy sources into renewables and non-renewables is not without problems. Geothermal power and hydroelectric power are classified as renewable energy but geothermal sites eventually cool down and hydroelectric dams gradually become filled with silt which may be very expensive to remove. Although it can be argued that while a specific location may be depleted, the total amount of potential geothermal and hydroelectric power is not and a new power plant may sometimes be built on a different location. Nuclear power is not classified as a renewable but the amount of uranium in the seas may continue to be replenished by rivers through erosion of underground resources for as long as the remaining life of the Sun. Fossil fuels are finite but hydrocarbon fuel may be produced in several ways as described below.

Many of the current or potential future power production numbers given below do not subtract the energy consumed due to loss of energy from constructing the power facilities and distribution network, energy distribution itself, maintenance, inevitable replacement of old power production facilities and distribution network, backup capacity due to intermittent output, and energy required to reverse damage to the environment and other externalities. Net power production using life cycle analysis is more correct but more difficult and has many new uncertain factors.

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History of predictions about future energy development

Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the question of the future of energy supplies has occupied economists.

  • 1865 - William Stanley Jevons published The Coal Question in which he claimed that reserves of coal would soon be exhausted and that there was no prospect of oil being an effective replacement.
  • 1885 - US Geological Survey: Little or no chance of oil in California.
  • 1891 - US Geological Survey: Little or no chance of oil in Kansas or Texas.
  • 1914 - US Bureau of Mines: Total future production of 5.7 billion barrels.
  • 1939 - US Department of the Interior: Reserves to last only 13 years.
  • 1951 - US Department of the Interior, Oil and Gas Division: Reserves to last 13 years.

(Data from Kahn et al. (1976) pp.94-5 infra)

  • 1956 - Geophysicist M. King Hubbert predicts US Oil production will peak between 1965 and 1970 (Peaked in 1970). Also predicts World Oil production will peak at approximately 2000 based on 1956 growth predictions.
  • 1989 - Predicted peak by Colin Campbell (“Oil Price Leap in the Early Nineties,” Noroil, December 1989, pages 35-38.)
  • 2004 - OPEC estimates it will nearly double oil output by 2025 (Opec Oil Outlook to 2025 Table 4, Page 12)

The history of perpetual motion machines is a long list of failed and sometimes fraudulent inventions of machines which produce useful energy "from nowhere" - that is, without requiring additional energy input.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels supply most of the energy consumed today. They are relatively concentrated and pure energy sources and technically easy to exploit, and provide cheap energy if the costs of pollution and subsidies are ignored. Petroleum products provide almost all of the world's transportation fuel.

Pollution is a large problem. Fossil fuels contribute to global warming and acid rains. The use of fossil fuels, mainly coal, causes tens of thousands of deaths each year in the US alone from diseases like respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer [9]. Both derivatives from the hydrocarbon fuel itself like carbon dioxide and impurities like heavy metals, sulfur, and uranium contribute to the pollution. Natural gas is generally considered the least polluting of the fossil fuels with coal being the most polluting. Some of the non-conventional forms like oil shale may be significantly more polluting than the conventional ones. These problems may be lessened by new ways of burning the fuels and cleaning up the exhaust. The storage of the ashes and the pollutants recovered from the cleaning processes may also be a problem. Carbon dioxide is also implicated as a major factor in global warming. To ameliorate the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, various techniques have been proposed for carbon sequestration. Such proposed solutions may increase the price of using fossil fuels.

Governments usually provide various services which can be seen as subsidies artificially lowering the price of fossil fuels: A variety of oil- and transportation-related infrastructures and services such as providing roads and highway police for vehicles almost exclusively using fossil fuels; government agencies doing research on all aspects of fossil fuel technology; various tax breaks; and huge militaries and even wars to protect access to foreign fossil fuel reserves [10].

Fossil fuels are also finite. See Hubbert peak for a discussion about the projected production peak of oil and other fossil fuels. A minority view among Russian geologists that has recently received some professional interest in Western nations, the abiogenic petroleum origin theory, could lead to dramatically different projections.

New technology can affect the date of the peaks for fossil fuels and how much energy each unit of fossil fuel produces: exploration may become less expensive and more accurate; the costs of drilling and mining may decrease; resources deeper in the ground may become recoverable; the percentage of fossil fuel recovered from a field may be significantly increased; improved monitoring systems may reduce production costs and extend the life of marginal wells; storage and transportation losses and costs may be reduced; and refining and power plants may become more efficient. [11][12][13].


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Conventional oil

Main article: Hubbert peak

Conservative predictions are that conventional oil production will peak in 2007. There are many other predictions, one example is that the world conventional oil production will peak somewhere between 2020 and 2050, but that the output is likely to increase at a substantially slower rate after 2020 (Greene, 2003). Another recent study predicts the peak to somewhere between 2004 and 2037 [14]. Both the IAE and the EIA project that conventional oil production will continue to increase until at least 2025-2030.

Non-conventional oil

Main article: Non-conventional oil

Non-conventional types of production include: tar sands, oil shale and bitumen. These resources are estimated to contain three times as much oil as the remaining conventional oil resources but few are economically recoverable with current technology [15] although this may change [16]. Recovery of oil from tar sands is now economically feasible, with billions of dollars being invested in new oil recovery plants.

Natural gas

Conventional natural gas

The turning point for conventional natural gas will probably be somewhat later than for oil [17]. The pessimists predict a peak for conventional gas production between 2010 and 2020.

Non-conventional natural gas

There are large unconventional gas resources, like methane hydrate or geopressurized zones, that could increase the amount of gas by a factor of ten or more, if recoverable [18][19].

Vast quantities of methane hydrate are inferred from the actual finds. Methane hydrate is a clathrate; a crystalline form in which methane molecules are trapped. The form is stable at low temperature and high pressure, conditions that exist at ocean depth of 500 meters or more, or under permafrost. Inferred quantities of methane hydrates exceed those of all other fossil fuels combined, including oil, conventional natural gas and coal [20].Technology for extracting methane gas from the hydrate deposits in commercial quantities has not yet been developed. A research and development project in Japan is targeting commercial-scale technology by 2016 [21].

There are several companies developing the Fischer-Tropsch process to enable practical exploitation of so-called stranded gas reserves.


There are large but finite coal reserves which may increasingly be used as an energy source during oil depletion. There are today 200 years of economically exploitable reserves at the current rate of consumption. Reserves have increased by over 50% in the last 22 years and are expected to continue to increase [22]. Coal resources are estimated to be 10 times larger. [23] Large amounts of coal waste that has been produced during coal mining and stored near the mines could become exploitable with new technology [24]. Image:World energy consumption, 1970-2025, EIA.png

Nuclear power

Main article: Nuclear power

There are presently over 400 nuclear reactors in the world, including several advanced designs (such as the ABWR) and a few breeder reactors.

At the present rate of use, there are 50 years left of known low-cost uranium reserves [25]. However, given that the cost of fuel is a minor cost factor for fission power, lower-grade or more expensive sources of uranium could be used in the future (for example: extraction from seawater [26] or from granite). Another alternative would be to use thorium as fission fuel since it is three times more abundant in the Earth crust than uranium [27], and much more of the thorium can be used (or, more precisely, converted into uranium-233 and then used). Having large thorium reserves, India is committed to developing this technology.

Current light water reactors burn the nuclear fuel inefficiently, leading to energy waste. Nuclear reprocessing [28] or burning the fuel better using different reactor designs would reduce the amount of waste material generated and allow better use of the available resources. As opposed to current light water reactors which use Uranium-235 (0.7% of all natural uranium), fast breeder reactors convert the more abundant Uranium-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium) into plutonium which can be used as fuel. It has been estimated that there is anywhere from 10,000 to five billion years worth of Uranium-238 for use in these power plants [29] using breeders. Breeder technology has been used in several reactors [30], and now China intends to build breeders [31].

Nuclear proliferation is the spread from nation to nation of nuclear technology, including nuclear power plants but especially nuclear weapons. New technology like SSTAR ("small, sealed, transportable, autonomous reactor") and pebble bed reactors may lessen this risk. Widespread adoption of fast breeder reactors would greatly increase the quantities of plutonium, in one form or another, in transit and in use throughout the world. As it is much easier to construct a nuclear weapon out of plutonium than the Low-enriched uranium used in more common Thermal reactors, this could have adverse affects on world security.

The long-term radioactive waste storage problems of nuclear power have not been fully solved. Several countries have considered using underground repositories. Nuclear waste takes up little space compared to wastes from the chemical industry which remain toxic indefinitely [32]. Spent fuel rods are now stored in concrete casks close to the nuclear reactors [33]. The amounts of waste can be reduced in several ways. Both nuclear reprocessing and fast breeder reactors can reduce the amounts of waste. Subcritical reactors or fusion reactors could greatly reduce the time the waste has to be stored [34]. Subcritical reactors may also be able to do the same to already existing waste.

The possibility of reactor accidents, like the Three Mile Island meltdown and the uncontained Chernobyl accident have caused much public fear. Research is being done to lessen the known problems of current reactor technology by developing automated and passively safe reactors. Historically, however, coal and hydropower power generation have both been the cause of far more deaths per energy unit produced than nuclear power generation. [35] Various kinds of energy infrastructure might be attacked by terrorists, including nuclear power plants, hydropower plants, refineries and liquified natural gas tankers. Finally, the world's worst industrial accident was caused by a chemical plant in the Bhopal disaster.

Advocates of nuclear power argue that nuclear power is a cost-competitive and environmentally friendly way to produce energy versus fossil fuels when taking into account externalities associated with both forms of energy production. [36] Also, nuclear power has a high energy return on energy investment (EROI). Using life cycle analysis, it takes 4-5 months of energy production from the nuclear plant to fully pay back the initial energy investment. [37]. Advocates also claim that it is possible to relatively rapidly increase the number of plants. Typical new reactor designs have a construction time of three to four years.[38]. 43 plants were being built in 1983, before an unexpected fall in fossil fuel prices stopped most new construction. Developing countries like India and China are rapidly increasing their nuclear energy use [39][40].

Fusion power could solve many of the problems of fission power (the technology mentioned above) but, despite fusion research having started in the 1950s, no commercial fusion reactor is expected before 2050 in the international ITER project. [41]. Other fusion technologies like inertial confinement fusion may have a different timetable. Many technical problems remain unsolved. Proposed fusion reactors commonly use deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, as fuel and in most current designs also lithium. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the current global output and that this does not increase in the future, then the known current lithium reserves would last 3000 years, lithium from sea water would last 60 million years, and a more complicated fusion process using only deuterium from sea water would have fuel for 150 billion years [42].

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Renewable energy

Main article: Renewable energy

Another possible solution to an energy shortage or predicted future shortage would be to use some of the world's remaining fossil fuel reserves as an investment in renewable energy. Before the industrial revolution, they were the only energy source used by humanity. Solid biofuel like wood is still the main power source for many poor people in developing countries, where overuse may lead to deforestation and desertification

Hydroelectricity is the only renewable today making a large contribution to world energy production. The long-term technical potential is believed to be 9 to 12 times current hydropower production, but increasingly, environmental concerns block new dams [43].

Solar thermal collectors can capture 70-80% of insolation as usable heat, and some authorities say that Passive solar heating and cooling of residences and other buildings is now (2005) economical. Solar cells can convert around 17% of the energy of incident sunlight to electrical energy. Researchers have estimated that algae farms could convert 10% into biodiesel energy. If built out as solar collectors, 1% of the land today used for crops and pasture could supply the world's total energy consumption. A similar area is used today for hydropower, as the electricity yield per unit area of a solar collector is 50-100 times that of an average hydro scheme. [44]

Wind power is one of the most cost competitive renewables today. Its long-term technical potential is believed 5 times current global energy consumption or 40 times current electricity demand. This requires 12.7% of all land area, or that land area with Class 3 or greater potential at a height of 80 meters. It assumes that the land is covered with 6 large wind turbines per square kilometer. Offshore resources experience mean wind speeds ~90% greater than that of land, so offshore resources could contribute substantially more energy.[45][46]. This number could also increase with higher altitude ground based or airborne wind turbines [47].

Geothermal power and tidal power are the only renewables not dependent on the sun but are today limited to special locations. All available tidal energy is equivalent to 1/4 of total human energy consumption today. Geothermal power has a very large potential if considering all the heat existing inside Earth, although the heat flow from the interior to the surface is only 1/20,000 as great as the energy received from the Sun or about 2-3 times that from tidal power [48].

Ocean thermal energy conversion and wave power are other renewables with large potential. Several other variations of utilizing energy from the sun also exist, see renewable energy.

Most renewable sources are diffuse and require large land areas and great quantities of construction material for significant energy production. There is some doubt that they can be built out rapidly enough to replace fossil fuels [49]. The large and sometimes remote areas may also increase energy loss and cost from distribution. On the other hand, some forms allow small-scale production and may be placed very close to or directly at consumer households, businesses, and industries which reduces or eliminates distribution problems.

The large areas affected also means that renewables may have a negative environmental impact, although populated suburbs have already been impacted by human development. Hydroelectricity dams, like the Aswan Dam, have adverse consequences both upstream and downstream. The flooded areas also contain decaying organic material that release gases contributing to global warming. The mining and refining of large amounts of construction material may also affect the environment.

Aside from hydropower and geothermal power, which are site-specific, renewable supplies generally have higher costs than fossil fuels if the externalized costs of pollution are ignored, as is common. Renewables like wind and solar are cost effective in remote areas that are off grid because the cost of a grid connection is high, as is the cost of transporting diesel fuel. The fact that small diesel generators are not hugely efficient and the fact that they consume fuel and make noise even when offload also makes renewables seem more desirable in this situation.

There is some hope that further investment in R&D might bring down the cost of some renewable energy sources. Nuclear power has been subsidized by 0.5-1 trillion dollars since the 1950s. No comparable investment has yet been made in renewable energy. Even so, the technology is improving rapidly. For example, solar cells are a hundred times less expensive today than the 1970s and development continues [50]. Larger scale production of renewable sources might also decrease unit costs.

Renewable sources currently make most sense in less developed areas of the world, where the population density cannot economically support the construction of an electrical grid or petroleum supply network. Without these investments, fossil fuel energy sources do not enjoy large economies of scale, and distributed, small-scale electrical generation from renewables is often cheaper.

Increased efficiency in current energy use

New technology may make better use of already available energy through improved efficiency, such as more efficient fluorescent lamps, engines, and insulation. Using heat exchangers, it is possible to recover some of the energy in waste warm water and air, for example to preheat incoming fresh water. Hydrocarbon fuel production from pyrolysis could also be in this category, allowing recovery of some of the energy in hydrocarbon waste. Meat production is energy inefficient compared to the production of protein sources like soybean or Quorn. Already existing power plants often can and usually are made more efficient with minor modifications due to new technology. New power plants may become more efficient with technology like cogeneration. New designs for buildings may incorporate techniques like passive solar. Light-emitting diodes are gradually replacing the remaining uses of light bulbs. Note that none of these methods allows perpetual motion, as some energy is always lost to heat.

Mass transportation increases energy efficiency compared to widespread conventional automobile use while air travel is regarded as inefficient. Conventional combustion engine automobiles have continually improved their efficiency and may continue to do so in the future, for example by reducing weight with new materials. Electric vehicles such as Maglev, trolleybuses, personal BEVs or PHEVs are more efficient during use (but maybe not if doing a life cycle analysis) than similar current combustion based vehicles, reducing their energy consumption during use by 1/2 to 1/4. Microcars may replace automobiles carrying only one or two people. Transportation efficiency may also be improved by in other ways, see automated highway system.

Electricity distribution may change in the future. New small scale energy sources may be placed closer to the consumers so that less energy is lost during electricity distribution. New technology like superconductivity or improved power factor correction may also decrease the energy lost. Distributed generation permits electricity "consumers", who are generating electricity for their own needs, to send their surplus electrical power back into the power grid.

Various market-based mechanisms have been proposed as mean of increasing efficiency, such as deregulation of electricity markets, Negawatt power, and trading of emission rights .

Energy storage and transportation fuel

There is a widely held misconception that hydrogen is an alternative energy source. There are no uncombined hydrogen reserves on Earth that could provide energy like fossil fuels or uranium. Uncombined hydrogen is instead produced with the help of other energy sources. It may play an important role in a future hydrogen economy as a general energy storage system, used both to smooth power output by intermittent power sources, like solar power, and as transportation fuel for vehicles. However, the idea is currently impractical: hydrogen is inefficient to produce, and expensive to store, transport, and convert back to electricity. New technology may change this in the future.

Many renewable energy systems produce intermittent power. Other generators on the grid can be throttled to match varying production from renewable sources, but most of this throttling capacity is already committed to handling variations in load. Further development of intermittent renewable power will require simultaneous development of storage systems such as hydrogen. See grid energy storage for other alternatives. Intermittent energy sources may be limited to at most 20-30% of the electricity produced for the grid without such storage systems. Some energy will be lost when converting to and from storage and the storage systems will also add to the cost of the intermittent energy sources requiring them. If electricity distribution loss and costs could be greatly reduced, then intermittent power production from many different sources could be averaged into smooth output. Renewables that are not intermittent include hydroelectric power, geothermal power, solar chimney, ocean thermal energy conversion, high altitude airborne wind turbines, biofuel, and solar power satellites.

There are also other alternatives for transportation fuel. Various chemical processes can convert the carbon and hydrogen in coal, natural gas, plant and animal biomass, and organic wastes into short hydrocarbons suitable as transportation fuels. Examples of such fuels are Fischer-Tropsch diesel, methanol, dimethyl ether, or syngas. Such diesel was used extensively in World War II by the Germans, who had limited access to crude oil supplies. Today South Africa produces most of country's diesel from coal. [51]. A long term oil price above 35 USD may make such liquid fuels economical on a large scale (See coal). Some of the energy in the original source will be lost in the conversion process. Compressed natural gas can itself be used as a transportation fuel. Also coal itself can be used as transportation fuel, historically coal has been used directly for transportation purposes in vehicles and boats using steam engines.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be converted to hydrocarbon fuel with the help of energy from another source. The energy can come from sunlight using natural photosynthesis which can produce various biofuels such as biodiesel, alcohol fuels, or biomass which can be broken down into the fuels mentioned above. The energy could also come from sunlight using future artificial photosynthesis technology [52][53]. Another alternative for the energy is electricity or heat from renewables or nuclear power [54][55]. Compared to hydrogen, many hydrocarbons fuels have the advantage of reusing existing engine technology and existing fuel distribution infrastructure.

Electric vehicles and electric boats using batteries or non-hydrogen fuel cells are other alternatives. Electricity may be the only power source or combined with other fuels in hybrid vehicles. Nuclear power has been used in large ships [56]. High technology sails could provide some of the power for ships [57]. Several companies are proposing vehicles using compressed air for power. [58] [59]. Airships require less onboard fuel than a traditional aircraft and combining airship technology with glider technology may eliminate onboard fuel completely [60]. Personal rapid transit and some mass transportation systems, like trolleybus, metro or magnetic levitation trains, can use electricity directly from the grid and do not need a liquid fuel or battery.

Boron [61], silicon [62], and zinc [63] have also been proposed as energy storage solutions.


In the distant future space exploration could yield energy sources from satellites (see solar power satellite), from fissionables from asteroid mining, from the moon (see helium-3), and from a Dyson sphere though the latter options are currently far beyond the capability of current human technological mastery. Even more speculatively and therefore in the realm of near pure fantasy; the accretion disc of a black hole can convert about 50% of the mass energy of an object into radiation, as opposed to nuclear fusion which can only convert a few percent of the mass to energy.

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