The Energy Conundrum

The following is a guest post by Paul Winstanley, the Director of Energy Initiatives from the Stevens Institute of Technology.

1. Introduction

This paper was written as preparation for the recent Discover and Shell sponsored “Fossil Fuels 2050” event in October 2009 at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Energy demand continues to increase rapidly. For example, the worldwide marketed energy consumption has been forecast to increase by 44% to 678 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) from 2006 to 2030 [1]. Within this period, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) are anticipated to remain the dominant energy source. Against this avaricious appetite for fossil fuel there is ambiguity over the reserves [2]. In addition to the issues associated with the demand for fossil fuels the environmental impact associated with burning these fuels is an equally large concern.

Therefore, the future energy challenge is complex and highly interdependent. Specifically, we need to:

  • Consider the continued availability of fossil fuels;
  • Whilst we introduce credible energy alternatives;
  • Whilst we ameliorate environmental damage.
  • These three themes will now be considered in more detail.

    2. Continued Availability of Fossil Fuel

    Exploration of hitherto difficult reserves will continue. This will be driven by increasing energy costs and the availability of new technology that enable economic exploitation. Examples of technological advances include:

  • Exploration in deep ocean water;
  • The production of hydrocarbons from oil sands and shale;
  • Directional drilling to access non-vertical reserves.
  • Additionally, there is considerable scope to reduce and prioritize fossil fuel usage. This approach will be different by sector and by time. For example, the short-term viable alternatives for aviation are very limited and it is only recently that flights partially supported by bio-fuels have taken place. This contrasts to personal and mass land transportation where credible alternatives such as hybrid and all electric vehicles already exist. Here greater usage of alternative fuel vehicles should be encouraged by policy whilst longer-term solutions for aviation are researched and developed.

    3. Credible Alternatives to Fossil Fuel

    The previous section raised the opportunity to reduce and prioritize fossil fuel utilization. Given the increasing energy demand, this approach can only be pursued if credible alternatives to fossil fuel exist.

    a. Bio-Fuels. Considerable emphasis has been placed on the development and implementation of bio-fuels. In this case the overall enterprise must be environmentally and economically acceptable. Specifically, issues such as increasing the price of food crops and increasing the utilization of other resources, such as water, need to be considered actively [3].

    b. Renewable Energy. Emphasis has also been placed on the development of renewable energies. With the exception of hydro-electricity the impact of renewable energy to meet the global energy demand has been minimal [4]. There are many factors that underpin this situation:

  • Renewable energy systems and supply chains can lack maturity;
  • There is no “silver bullet” renewable energy solution;
  • Generally, renewable energy systems are large complex installations (e.g. large wind farms) that demand significant capital investment and complex planning and permitting.
  • To overcome these limitations innovation is crucially required at all stages in the renewable energy enterprise. One innovative approach could be the systematic application of energy storage and renewable energy at a smaller scale as a micro-grid. In the residential context this could be applicable at a township level. The micro-grid approach has the potential to deliver rapidly increased energy security and resilience as well as enabling a significant reduction in emissions.

    One important consideration is where geographically renewable energy systems could be developed. Much emphasis has been placed on the future energy demands of emergent economies [1]. It is important to recognize that these economies are generally not hindered by legacy. This is illustrated by the growth in cellular phones. For example, from 1997 to 2007 in emerging nations the number of cellular phones increased 18 times faster [5] on average than landlines and a technological generation was by-passed. Of greater relevance to this paper is rapid growth in London, UK of electric vehicles as a consequence of the introduction of congestion charging (which electric vehicles are exempt from). The dominant supplier of electric vehicles in London is G-Wiz [6], an Indian manufacturer. Therefore, the location of renewable energy system development may result in technological surprise.

    4. Amelioration of Environmental Damage

    The previous section raised the opportunity for an innovative micro-grid approach to reduce emissions. This approach could have a significant contribution to meeting the future emissions targets. For example, in the UK approximately 80% of the carbon emissions arise from energy consumed in buildings and electricity generation [7].

    As well as introducing renewable energy, reducing energy demands has the potential to reduce carbon emissions further. Approaches to reduce energy demands include:

  • Target setting on energy suppliers;
  • More stringent construction codes;
  • Energy labeling to highlight to consumers more efficient appliance;
  • Improved product standards, for example, minimizing power dissipation from appliances whilst they are in a “stand-by” mode;
  • Energy performance certification prior to renting or selling real estate;
  • Smart homes including smart meters and appliances to better inform users about energy consumption in order to highlight areas for energy reduction.
  • Building upon the latter point, it has been estimated that the domestic energy demand can be reduced by an additional 25% [8] by integrating appliances or products into the home so they can turn off automatically when not required. A key requirement is to realize effectively these crucial savings in a manner that is transparent to the occupants. This can be achieved by embedding intelligence and communications into appliances and is an example of an emergent systems engineering discipline – “cognition-centric systems engineering”.

    In order to meet the required 2050 environmental targets it has been estimated that 1% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) needs to be invested every year from now until 2050. Given the technological element of meeting these target a shortage of skilled and experience staff is probable. At a smaller scale, this limitation has already been identified in the USA as a consequence of Stimulus Package Funding with the Department of Energy [9]. To overcome this there will be an increasingly urgent need to increase the availability of training and re-training at the technician, undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

    5. Discussion

    This paper has made the case that the future energy conundrum is complex and highly interdependent and the continued availability of fossil fuels needs to be considered along with the introduction of credible alternatives whilst ameliorating environmental damage. Pursuit of part of this triad is likely to result in an incomplete or inappropriate solution set. Therefore, it is essential to solve the future energy conundrum holistically and systematically. Moreover, the scope of the future energy challenge dictates that:

    1. Innovation will be required continuously through the energy enterprise. This is innovation in the broadest sense, not just technical, and will encompass areas such as systems to business process to supply chain.
    2. Advances are likely to happen in emergent economies that are unconstrained by the fossil fuel legacy; technological surprise could become a reality.
    3. Unless we act now there is a high probability that there will be a shortage of skilled and experienced staff, at all levels from technician to post-graduate. If this situation arises we will not have the number of skilled staff to realize our aspirations and needs.

    Paul Winstanley, Stevens Institute of Technology, November 2009

    [1] Report #:DOE/EIA-0484(2009)









    24 thoughts on “The Energy Conundrum”

    1. "Exploration of hitherto difficult reserves will continue. This will be driven by increasing energy costs and the availability of new technology that enable economic exploitation. Examples of technological advances include: Exploration in deep ocean water; The production of hydrocarbons from oil sands and shale; Directional drilling to access non-vertical reserves."

      But is even one of those "new" technologies less than twenty years old at this stage? And they've made barely a dent. I think the key to the above is "increasing energy costs". At what price will these difficult reserves come online? $200? $500? $1000?

      Unless someone can answer that question, are we really justified in predicting a 44% increase in energy use to 2030?

    2. Of the four,only shale isn't being exploited Pete. And that's because Congress is dragging its feet. Problem is,tar sands production will probably peak around 3M bpd. Deep ocean drilling still holds promise. But,there won't be any finds below 40,000 ft. Those reserves have been cooked off. And reserves close to that depth are already being tapped. Sure,there's more to be found. But,enough to keep up with Hubbert's Peak? Not a chance.

      If we're going to see any increase in energy use,it's going to come from alternative and unconventional sources. And,as much as I hate to admit….nuclear.

    3. King is absolutely right.

      When a so-called "expert" ignores the only available non-fossil technology which can be scaled up to supply the huge level of power required by human society, it calls into question everything else the aforesaid "expert" wrote.

      The fact that this "expert" pays lip-service to the unscientific nonsense of Alleged Anthropogenic Global Warming only reinforces the view that he should be totally discounted.

    4. The ultimate answer my dear friends lies in fusion power.

      Clean and abundant, but (unfortunately) so far not technically possible.

      Of all the things we could put R&D money into, fusion offers by far the best way to shape the future for the good.

      Once we cross the threshold of making fusion power a practical reality, our energy problems will become a trivial concern.

      (Now, if someone could just figure out a practical way to make those di-lithium crystals they used on Star Trek.) 😉

    5. Fusion will be the ultimate answer, but we need not wait until then. We can build the next generation of fission reactors, then move on to a thorium cycle.

      Before someone mentions it, yes, nuclear is expensive. Environmental opposition certainly plays a role in making it expensive. But why is 8 cents/kWh nuclear expensive, and a reason not to do it, but 10cents/kWh wind or 15 cents/kWh solar – heavily subsidized – a good idea?

      BTW – I'm STILL waiting for my $1/W solar panels.

    6. Maybe nuclear wasn't mentioned,because it's not for everyone. I can think of a dozen countries I hope never even dream of nuclear capabilities. Iran and North Korea are giving the world fits with their nuclear desires today.

      I don't like nuclear power. But,I'd rather use nuclear than burn fossil fuels in a peak oil world. Until acceptable biofuels come about,or transportation fleets switch over to batteries,CTL and GTL will have to take up much of the slack. The only way to do that without dumping more CO2 into the air is to cut back on fossil fuels used for electricity. Reality bites.

    7. I agree with the powerful intellects of King and Kinu.
      This is a nice essay, but the author, Paul Winstanley, seems oblivious to nukes and the price signal.
      We can build more nukes, and have been for 50 years. France and Japan are in fact nuking up. This is not some exotic technology.
      The price signal will dampen demand for fossils. If fossil fuels become too expensive, people will conserve or switch. OPEC has a real problem on its hands–either make sure your product is cheap and plentiful, or watch the world pass you by.
      This is yet another well-written essay, yet rests upon faulty premises, and thus leads to hysteria.
      Nukes, CNGs, PHEVs and the price signal. I just don't think hysteria is justified.

    8. Thank you, Paul Winstanley, for pointing out that these issues are much too complex for prostitutians and bureaucrats to get right. So enough, already! Cut out ALL subsidies, and let the various fuels slug it out in the market place. You got a biofuel winner? Put him in the ring, and we'll see soon enough.

      Concerned about the environment? Hate to rain on Al Gore's parade, but there are engineered solutions for that, even for energy hogs like him. Much cheaper than trying to eliminate carbon from our diet, according to some.

      To the disciples of Peak Oil: Economics 101: In a Free Market there is no shortages, just high (and sometimes volatile) prices. 2008 will be back…

    9. Never trust anyone who uses 'conundrum' in sentence. Ditto:

      – hitherto
      – whilst
      – amelioration

      “This paper has made the case that the future energy conundrum is complex and highly interdependent and the continued availability of fossil fuels needs to be considered along with the introduction of credible alternatives whilst ameliorating environmental damage.”

      Producing energy and protecting the environment is not that complex of a problem. We do it every day. I can assume that there will still be universities in 2050 who teach engineering and do not like that.

      “Did the author forget about nuclear? How convenient.”

      When I am reading about energy and my BS meter pegs high I stop and search for the word 'nuclear'. More often than not, complex difficult problems are more of an indication of the perceptions of the author than an actual complex difficult problems.

      “But why is 8 cents/kWh nuclear expensive, “

      Because 2 cents/kWh nuclear is what current amortized nukes are making electricity for. Let me go out on a limb for 2050. The expensive nukes will be cheap nukes in 20 years and then keep running for 40 more years.

    10. Of the four,only shale isn't being exploited Pete.

      Slight correction, US oil shale is not being exploited. It has been & will continue to be exploited outside of the US.

    11. "It [shale oil] has been & will continue to be exploited outside of the US."

      Pray tell more. Oil shale was the foundation of the chemical industry in Scotland. But it was put out of business after World War II by expanding supplies of cheap Mid-East oil.

      Is there anywhere today that oil shale is being exploited commercially?

    12. KingofKaty wrote "Just put wind turbines on the front and back of the car and you can generate power while you drive. Genius!"

      Actually, the numbers on that do work out, and it would work – only, usually not very fast. However, the Amateur Yacht Research Society (AYRS) did once report on someone who had built a special car with a parabolic windfoil arching above it, that could run at high speed from almost any cross winds and recharged the auxiliary batteries that got it up to speed in the first place.

    13. Paul Winstanley may want to consider this, nuclear-assisted syngas production from coal.

      Kit, you work on the nuclear part. King can do the gasifier. Robert can make the fuel. Benny does marketing. Kinu and I will change Maury's fear into respect. And Rufus is in charge of…


      The i-r-squared dream team.

    14. a special car with a parabolic windfoil arching above it, that could run at high speed from almost any cross winds

      And what if the air is still, with no wind?

    15. Clee asked "And what if the air is still, with no wind?"

      If I recall correctly, that amateur was working in a part of Utah where the ground was very open and flat, so that was rare and there were few issues of coping with hills. The ideal was to use reserve battery power when necessary, with that happening infrequently enough that it was recharging often enough not to run down. And it was only a hobby anyway…

    16. Sorry Dennis I am already on a R&D dream team that will keep me busy until I retire. If I retire, I am having too much fun right now. I do know people on the VHTGR team. It is interesting work but dependent on the whims of government funding. I have also lived and worked in Idaho Falls. It is a beautiful place especially if you like hunting, fishing skiing, and very long cold winters.

      Also I would want to be the marketing guy on biomass projects. Who cares what Maury thinks unless Maury happens to be in the community where the project is being built. Unless Maury happens to be a lawyer for Sierra Club and lives in some big city.

    17. Thanks for the comments. Nuclear was an omission, my mistake. But the argument on nuclear is the same as my core – preserve the legacy, introduce new, but consider environmental impact in a holistic and systematic manner. Additionally, the other points I made are still applicable. For example, the last time I saw data on engineers in the UK with nuclear experience they were aged and their experience was focused heavily upon decommissioning. There was a significant skills shortage for new nuclear design.

    18. Al Gore has just confessed in Newsweek that CO2 is responsible for only 43% Of global waming. Hmm. Anybody would have said that prior to his abrupt turnaround would have been labelled a negationist. The science, remember, was settled. Well, I suppose it's settled again at 43% now. Until Mr Carbon billionaire changes his mind again, right?
      A question to all : how about we include in this kind of articles, the option, Don't Reduce CO2 Emissions Because We Don't Have Scientific Ground To Do Something So Harmful To Our Economy and Our Jobs?

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