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What Is the Energy Challenge of 2050?

Niels Bohr, the physicist, said that, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Perhaps it should have an asterisk that says “and especially about the future of energy.” A number of past energy predictions went unfulfilled.  Now that we are well past the year 2000 and all the speculation that year brought to us, the year 2050 seems to be a benchmark, especially when it comes to our energy future.

Energy in the year 2050 is the topic of a TV show coming up on the Discovery Channel on Thursday evening, December 22. It’s called “ENERGY 2050.” It has the teaser: “In the year 2050, with a booming population in dire need of energy, how will we adapt?”

The series has three programs and ought to be interesting. WIRED magazine has a center stage role in the program. Shell is a prominent backer of the program, and Shell has a reputation for insightful strategic scenario planning. The company had thought about the oil boom and bust that caught others by surprise.

Shell energy scenarios to 2050 CoverIn a Shell Energy publication called, Shell energy scenarios to 2050, the company says, “To help think about the future of energy, we have developed two scenarios that describe alternative ways it may develop. In the first scenario – called Scramble – policymakers pay little attention to more efficient energy use until supplies are tight. Likewise, greenhouse gas emissions are not seriously addressed until there are major climate shocks. In the second scenario – Blueprints – growing local actions begin to address the challenges of economic development, energy security and environmental pollution.”

Reading through the scenario analysis provides a reflection on what we may face in energy over the next few decades. A number of others have put their 2050 thoughts out in public. Here are just a few of them.

People and organizations have considerable concerns about energy. One document is called, “World Energy to 2050 - Forty Years of Decline,” and in its ending says, “….we must change our values away from our current paradigm of growth, competition and exploitation to one of sustainability, cooperation and nurturing.  The longer and tighter we cling to our present ways, the more damage we will ultimately inflict on ourselves and the world we live in.”

Deciding the Future: Energy Policy Scenarios to 2050 CoverA 2007 report from the World Energy Council, called, “Deciding the Future: Energy Policy Scenarios to 2050,” notes this possibility: “North America – setback in energy security: Without clear lines of accountability to maintain and develop energy infrastructure, North America’s energy supply becomes less reliable. With low cooperation, security of supply is less assured than before. Clean energy develops slowly and is not a priority for policymakers.” The report also notes the critical need to invest in energy delivery, adding, “…most of the disruptions in delivering energy from source to end use have been related to underinvestment in energy transport infrastructure...”

Some of the 2050 outlooks suggest ways to tackle the energy challenges.

Charlotte had a visit earlier in 2011 from the UK Minister of Energy and the Environment, and the UK has material on-line to help its citizens reduce energy use and their carbon footprint. It’s called THE 2050 CHALLENGE, and the government material says, “The UK is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. We need a transformation of the UK economy while ensuring secure, low carbon energy supplies to 2050, and face major choices about how to do this. In 2010, DECC built the 2050 Calculator to help the public engage in the debate, and for Government to ensure its short- and medium-term planning was consistent with achieving the long-term aim. In the Carbon Plan published in December 2011, we used the Calculator to illustrate three 2050 futures that show some of the plausible routes towards meeting the target.”  

There is a state with an analysis on-line that lays out the big picture for energy – California. Some people say that what starts in California eventually migrates east. The report, California's Energy Future - The View to 2050, “…looks a generation ahead at what's required to reach that goal and answers the call of S-3-05, the (California) executive order from 2005 to reduce the state's emissions 80 percent below the 1990 level by 2050. The good news: The technology to do more with less energy and produce the electricity and fuel we need to get to the 60 percent mark is either in demonstration, or already in use. Pushing on to a full 80 percent reduction in emissions will require significant levels of research, development, invention and innovation, the report states.”

The report says how difficult it will be to conserve in the face of a growing population. It notes the role of natural gas, and also says, “Nuclear power can provide constant, reliable emission-free energy with a much lower and more easily met requirement for load balancing. Roughly 30 new nuclear power plants could provide two-thirds of California's electric power in 2050.” This was published following the Japan earthquake.  The report notes the need to develop storage technologies, noting the intermittent nature of some renewables.

The California report notes, “The report's conclusion strongly recommends the development of multiple solutions, making it clear that no single approach will take the state to a future nearly free of fossil fuel emissions. Getting to the 60 percent mark, on technology either at commercial scale or in development, can be accomplished through four key strategies:

  • Aggressive efficiency measures for buildings, industry and transportation to reduce the need for both electricity and fuel.
  • Electrification of transportation and heat wherever technically feasible to avoid fossil fuel use as much as possible.
  • Developing emission-free electricity production with some combination of renewable energy, nuclear power and fossil fuel accompanied by underground storage of the carbon dioxide emissions, while at the same time nearly doubling electricity production.
  • Finding supplies of low-carbon fuel to supply transportation and heat use which cannot be electrified, such as for airplanes and heavy duty trucks, and high quality heat in industry.”

A Shell Energy executive sums it up well: “If historians now see the turn of the 19th century as the dawn of the industrial revolution, I hope they will see the turn of the 21st century as the dawn of the energy revolution.” - Rob Routs, Executive Director of Downstream, Royal Dutch Shell plc.

The revolution will have to be technological, economic and one of pure will. One prediction we know will come true – We know that the energy experts of various disciplines in the Charlotte Region will be a part of the good thinking to address energy in the Carolinas and the world. 

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Posted by Scott Carlberg on December 20, 2011

In Category: Energy

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