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Will the lights go out?

Posted 21/09/2011 by KatieJ

Global energy consumption is forecast to grow by 53% between 2008 and 2035, driven by the strong economic growth in China and India, according to the latest projections by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). ‘China and India account for half of the projected increase in world energy use over the next 25 years,’ says acting EIA administrator Howard Gruenspecht. ‘China alone, which only recently became the world’s top energy consumer, is projected to use 68% more energy than the US by 2035.’

Another measure of energy use, energy intensity - the total energy consumption divided by gross world product - has experienced a reversal in the broader trend of decline that has been experienced over the last 30 years. According to a new Vital Signs Online article produced by the US-based research organisation, Worldwatch Institute, global energy intensity increased by 1.35% in 2010, following an average 0.8% decline over the period 1981-2010, due in a large part to increasing energy efficiency.

‘During this period of decline, most developed countries restructured their economies, and energy-intensive heavy industries accounted for a shrinking share of production,’ says Haibing Ma, manager of Worldwatch’s China Program, who conducted the research. ‘New technologies applied to energy production and consumption significantly improved efficiency in almost every aspect of the economy.’

Energy intensity has been declining in both the developed and the developing economies, with China achieving a 65% decline in energy intensity over the last 30 years. This reversal in the downward trend is especially discouraging, even if it were to be temporary, says Worldwatch executive director Robert Engelman. ‘With both population and consumption growing worldwide, the capacity of the world’s economy to require less energy for each unit of output has been a rare positive trend for the environment.’

Of the various energy sources, the EIA believes that fossil fuels will remain the dominant source of energy, accounting for 78% of world energy use in 2035. Of the fossil-based primary energy sources, the EIA says that natural gas will be the fastest growing over the period, with a 1.6%/year increase in consumption.

But the EIA forecasts that renewable energy will be the fastest growing source of primary energy over the next 25 years. Renewable energy consumption is forecast to increase by 2.8%/year, while its share of total energy use is projected to grow from 10% in 2008 to 15% in 2035.

About one ‘renewable’ energy source, nuclear, both the EIA and Worldwatch make no comment, despite US energy secretary Stephen Chu’s presentation at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent conference in which he reiterated the US commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy and its role in meeting the world’s increasing energy demands.

In Europe, nuclear energy has seen a broad range of attitudes from France’s on-going commitment and a new commitment in the Czech Republic, through the UK’s hesitant commitment to Germany and Italy’s rejection, matching and influenced by Japan’s recent experiences. But can we afford to ignore nuclear energy in the long run if the lights are to remain on?

Along with new sources of energy, improving energy efficiency will certainly have a key role in the future. ‘The area of saving energy and using it more efficiently is one of the two key components of a sustainable energy transition, the other being renewable energy production,’ says Alexander Ochs, director of Worldwatch’s Climate & Energy programme. ‘Our research has shown that 50% or more of global electricity demands can be delivered by renewable energy if – and only if – renewable energy is implemented in tandem with energy efficiency.’

But is it really possible to meet this huge predicted increase in energy usage? Will the lights really go out? What is the likely environmental impact? For other views, why not attend the SCI event: When the lights go out will we care about carbon emissions, at the SCI’s London headquarters on 20 October 2011?

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    13/10/2013 02:25

    The NRC's quaterly pluibc meeting with the TVA Browns Ferry Unit 1 Restart Project Management was on Thursday. Here are a few notes I took (I am not an engineer, so sorry for mistakes!):- The nuclear fuel arrived on site on July 17 from GE.- Expecting a December 2006 fuel load.- Power generation is on schedule for May 2007. There was some hinting that this might happen earlier.- The $1.8 billion restart project is on budget.- Browns Ferry staffing was at 898 persons prior to restart. They are at 1015 now. They forecast a need for 1047 staff members to support 3-unit operation.- About 2,300 contractor employees on site.- Stone & Webster is the prime construction contractor.- Bechtel is the prime design contractor.- NRC will have an additional permanent on site inspector (2 -> 3), since it is their custom to have the same number of resident inspectors as operating units.- There is a tremendous amount of testing and inspection, and internal and external approvals required as each of the many subsystems are turned over to the plant operators. (The subsystems of the Unit 1 are "owned" by the restart project, and the restart project sort of has to "prove" that the subsystems are appropriately designed and constructed and inspected/tested before the "operating plant" will accept them for operation.)- The project involved 605,529 feet of cabling, of which 83% is installed.- There are 41,038 cable terminations, of which 89% are complete.- There is 15,137 feet of small bore piping, of which 96% are complete.- I gathered that much of the unit's active equipment was either replaced or sent to the vendor for refurbishment.

  • Anonymous said:
    13/07/2012 11:35

    Nuclear power is very expensive and is hevaliy subsidised by governments. The development of nuclear power supports the development of nuclear weapons. Note which countries posses nuclear defences and which countries promote nuclear power?!Facts:Currently only 2% of the world's energy consumption comes from nuclear power.70% of energy generated by nuclear powerstations is needed for the process itself (i.e. cooling, transportation of nuclear wast etc)The problem of nuclear waste is still unresolved.When will governments subsidies renewables as they do nuclear?

  • Anonymous said:
    28/09/2011 09:07

    You can read an interview with Dame Sue Ion, who is delivering the lecture, here: http://www.soci.org/News/SCI-public-lectures-Ion