Future of renewable energy


Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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Born on Oct. 30, 2011, Danica May Camacho was the seven billionth human on this Earth.

From the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, the world population grew to 370 million. We reached one billion in 1800, two billion in 1930. During the past century, however, the rate of growth has rapidly increased – four billion in 1980, projected to reach eight billion in 2025

In 2052, it is expected that 1.5 billion people will populate the industrialized world, and 8.5 billion will live in developing countries.

The world energy demand has followed a similar, but much steeper trend. Over the past 150 years, the world population has increased by a factor of five, while the energy consumption by a factor of 24, with 80 per cent of it attributed to fossil fuels, and today, corresponding to more than 1,000 barrels per second.

The exponential increase in population and the corresponding increase in the amount of resources to sustain it – food, water and energy – have led to an exponential accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases causing effects on the global climate. Human population, food, water, health, environment, education, economic wellbeing and wars are all linked to the availability of energy.

Today, we are using more energy than what the biosphere can sustainably generate.

Will it be possible for all the Earth’s growing numbers to live sustainably, and for poor countries to improve their quality of life without devastating the entire planet?

The most plausible answer is no, unless we implement a very significant change.

Lack of sustainability will lead to changes, which could be dramatic, if not controlled. Further complications are linked to all aspects of globalization and, most importantly, to the chronic economic volatility experienced by both industrialized and developing countries in recent years.

Therefore, whether we like it or not, significant change will happen over the next 40 years – be it well managed and controlled or erratic and unpredictable. This change will greatly depend on the availability of resources and, mostly, on energy.

We are close, or we may have even surpassed, the ‘oil peak.’ The days of the ‘easy oil’ are over, and we are witnessing a huge surge of interest in unconventional resources, such as the Oil Sands.

Canada is blessed by the availability of this resource which will continue and expand its prominence in the years to come. Overall, the oil demand will increase in the next 40 years.

The ‘gas peak’ will eventually occur, but later than the ‘oil peak.’ The recent developments and spectacular expansion of tight and shale gas supplies are dramatically changing the energy directions of the United States and will shape its position for the next decades.

Overall, the gas demand will increase around the world. Coal is still the most abundant – and dirtiest – of the fossil fuels. It will lose popularity in North America, but will continue to be used in developing countries, stimulating more activities in the development of improved technologies as well as in carbon sequestration and storage, in an attempt to combat the greenhouse gas emissions.

Without any doubt, oil, gas and coal will continue to be the primary sources of energy in the world for the next 40 years. But the difference between energy demand and supply will continue to widen, thus stimulating the expansion of other energy sources.

Nuclear energy may stabilize at current levels or just increase slightly. But the greatest expansion will be with renewable energy, although the net contribution of renewable towards the global energy demand will still be minor in 40 years.

It is likely the role of biomass will increase from providing about 7 per cent of the world energy demand today, primarily through combustion, to about 15 per cent in 40 years, with more than half of this contribution derived from first generation (ethanol) and second generation (advanced) biofuels.

Other renewables, primarily solar and wind with some geothermal, will continue to expand their contribution to about 15 per cent by 2050, with their relative contribution mostly dependent upon the technology advances in the field of solar energy. In the future, we may come across transformative technologies, such as thermonuclear fusion, but none of these is expected to become viable in the next four decades.

In summary, no single silver bullet available today will solve the predicted energy and environmental challenges. The direction is a slow integration of multiple technologies with an increasing relevance of renewables and carbon sequestration and storage, along a bumpy ride caused by significant economic instabilities, and world tensions.

This is not a pretty picture, but one in which scientists, engineers, economists, governments will need to put their heads together and work with the general public to manage the change and steer the world in the right direction.

Franco Berruti is a Chemical Engineering professor in the Faculty of Engineering.