|Dr Jacob Klimstra
Affordable energy is the engine of the economy. Politicians and bankers blame each other during an economic downturn while they try to take the credit during times of increasing affluence. However, the statistics of primary energy use and gross domestic product for the combined economies of the world show that cheap energy is the real wealth creator. Energy is in almost everything that we do and have. The only way to pull the world’s almost three billion poor people out of poverty is by ensuring that they can use more energy, especially electricity, at low costs.
In our July-August issue, I wondered what Asian power professionals would say about the future of electricity production during the POWER-GEN Asia 2014 conference in Kuala Lumpur. Their message was very clear: the way forward in Southeast Asia is increasing energy use at the lowest possible cost for many decades to come. It was mentioned that the Western world has had its ample share in fuel use, and that now the people of Asia are entitled to use much energy. Predictions are that within 20 years’ time, Asia will use more primary energy than the rest of the world. Coal, with its high specific CO2 production, will be the main fuel for electricity production. A presentation on carbon capture and storage showed that it is already close to impossible to store the 35 billion tonnes per year of CO2 that fuel burning produces. Just imagine the challenges that will emerge when this figure doubles in a few decades’ time.
For me, it is clearly unfair that just a small part of the global population has the privilege to live in wealth. However, the expected doubling of primary energy use in maybe 25-30 years, with its associated greenhouse gas emissions, makes one worry. During the past five decades, the reserve/consumption ratio of oil and natural gas was always 50 years, even though the world’s fuel consumption more than tripled during that timespan. For coal, this ratio is 110 years at the moment. Shale gas has now improved the ratio for gas to also some 110 years. However, nobody can believe that the reserve/consumption ratio of fuels will continue to remain constant, especially if consumption doubles. Reduced reserve levels automatically translate to higher prices. Next to worries about fuel availability and global warming, there is the problem of water scarcity. The media send out alarming messages on the difficulty of producing sufficient food for a growing world population. Food production also requires much energy. The big question now is how to keep everybody comfortable and happy, especially in the long term.
The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, solar-based systems will be the major provider of electrical energy. If one reads the lines below this jubilant heading, it appears however that, by then, still at least 75% of electricity will be produced by means other than direct solar radiation. Siemens and BP also predict that carbon-intensive fuels will continue to power the world’s economies for many decades. The big question now is whether we can accept that consuming fossil fuels will accelerate until the moment when ultimate depletion is a fact.
Instead of only spending large amounts of tax money on subsidising solar- and wind-based energy, governments should take concerted action to stimulate the rapid development of reliable, low-cost solar panels and wind turbines. Further, energy-using processes and buildings should be improved to the optimum degree. Next to that, the market should be designed in such a way that owners of flexible generators are properly rewarded for keeping available the indispensible backup equipment for renewables. Cogeneration units especially can fulfil an excellent role as efficient balancers both for heat and electricity use. With proper action, the use of fossil fuels can be drastically reduced.
Foresight is the essence of government and we have only one chance to avoid bitter regret.