Unsustainable energy

This morning I went to a sobering symposium on “Sustainable Energy” at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge.

First speaker was Daniel Nocera of MIT who set the scene in a witty and clever presentation. The world is currently using 12.8 trillion watts (TW). If you take the projected growth in population and multiply it by average energy use, you get a global demand for energy in 2050 that will be somewhere in the region 28 – 35 TW. He then went on to show that, in his phrase, “there’s no simple answer and no silver bullet” that can generate the energy will will need (and that’s entirely outside considerations of climate change). It’s an illusion to think that we can close the gap by conservation.

Where else might we look? Biomass? Well, according to Nocera, the most we’ll get from that is 7 – 10 TW.

What about nuclear? He thinks we could get 8TW if we built 8,000 new nuclear plants. Just think about that for a moment. There are 44 years to go before we hit 2050. That means we’d need to build and commission 182 nuclear plants every year from now on to get to that figure of 8,000. That’s roughly one new plant every two days. It ain’t gonna happen.

Nocera’s talk left me with a number of thoughts:

  • Solar energy is by far the best bet. He says that “more solar energy hits the earth’s surface in one day than all the energy we use in a year”.
  • We will have to invent our way out of this. Science and engineering are the only hopes we’ve got.
  • Our societies won’t be worth living in if we don’t have energy sources on which we can rely.

    Next up was Nick Butler, who’s Group Vice-President for Strategy and Policy Development at BP, the oil giant. If anything, his talk was even scarier. Some points:

  • The world’s population is currently growing at the rate of 250,000 a day. (Query: is this net growth?)
  • The current high level of oil prices is not due to physical scarcity of the stuff, but to fears about the security of our supply.
  • These fears are well founded. Consider these facts:
    There are four main importers of oil and gas — the US, Europe, Japan and (increasingly) China
    Supplies of oil and gas come overwhelmingly from three sources — West Africa, Russia and five countries in the Persian Gulf, of which the most important in volume terms is Saudi Arabia.
  • The transport infrastructure for getting oil and gas from producer regions to consumer regions is terrifyingly fragile, vulnerable and insecure.

    His conclusion: “the current position doesn’t feel sustainable”.

    And he’s a Vice President of one of the world’s biggest oil companies!

    He could see only two things that would act as drivers for radical change — a dramatic escalation of political fears about security, and the price of alternative sources of energy.

    I was reminded of my musings the other day about the intimate connection (never discussed in public by UK politicians) between energy supplies and national security. Britain, for example, is now almost totally dependent on Russia for supplies of gas.