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By Robert Rapier on Nov 5, 2009 with no responses

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)