In the 1700s, most of the world got its energy from windmills, water wheels, whales and plants. Plants contributed not only the wood for generating heat but also the internal fuel to power the labor of humans and animals. Since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, fossil fuels have been the engine that has driven the global economy. The world is living in the age of petroleum.
The United States came to power on a sea of oil. Every day the U.S. imports over $1 billion worth of oil. Yet, the United States has yet to develop a systematic program to lower its dependence on oil. In 1973, when President Richard Nixon said, “Our in-dependence will depend on maintaining and achieving self-sufficiency in energy,” the U.S. imported 34.8% of its oil from foreign countries.
When Jimmy Carter declared energy independence the “moral equivalent of war,” imports were up to 45% of the nation’s energy supply. Every American president since then has vowed to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and yet the nation’s dependency has grown.
Even President George W. Bush’s including energy independence with part of the War on Terror has failed to stem the tide. The United States currently imports over 58% of the oil consumed.That is about to change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) the total world consumption of energy will increase by 49 percent from 2007 to 2035.
The global economic recession that began in 2008 has had a profound impact on energy use and is expected to increase as the economy recovers. While there are encouraging signs that the recovery in the United States is starting to improve, recovery in Europe and Japan has lagged behind.
Historically, OECD1 member countries have ac-counted for the largest share of current world energy consumption; however, in 2007—for the first time—energy use among non-OECD2 nations exceeded that of OECD nations. Estimates show this trend will continue to grow.
The two countries leading that trend are China and India. These two countries accounted for about 10% of the world’s total energy consumption in 1990 and 20% in 2007. This demand is expected to rise to 30% in 2035. In contrast, the U.S. share of world energy consumption will fall from 21% in 2007 to about 16% during the same period. Much of that demand will be in oil.
Oil demand is expected to increase by 60% from China alone. To put this in perspective, in China only 30 out of 1000 own a car (compared to 700 per 1000 in the U.S.). In 25 years 240 people in China out of 1000 will own an automobile.
Because of China’s massive population,3 this represents an increase of over a quarter billion cars! This will call for a huge demand for oil in China, one the Chinese are trying to provide for by buying up oil reserves all over the world.
All sources of energy have their problems. The world needs to have a “bushel basket” full of energy, but this will take time. Weaning the world economy off a heavy dependence of oil will take time.
All this means that the era of cheap oil is over. World crude oil and liquid fuels consumption grew to 86.7 million barrels4 per day (bpd) in 2010, surpassing the previous record of 86.3 million bbl/d set in 2007. EIA expects that world liquid fuels consumption will grow by 1.4 million bbl/d this year, followed by 1.6 million bbl/d growth next year, resulting in total world consumption of 89.7 million bbl/d by the end of 2012.
Adding to the squeeze on oil supplies is the fact that the major oil exporting country of Saudi Arabia was caught overestimating its reserves by up to 40% or 300 billion barrels. Saudi Aramco has stated that the country cannot maintain its oil production.5
U.S. government policies have systematically restricted oil exploration for new sources of oil in some of the richest fields in the country. After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a “moratorium” was placed on exploration in the area, over the objections of the state governments of Louisiana and Mississippi, local businessmen along the Gulf who depend on the oil industry as a source of income, and even the expert panel commissioned to investigate the spill and its consequences.
In addition to the increased consumption and lowered reserve projections, major uncertainties could push oil prices above or below current forecasts. Among those are:
• Political unrest in the oil producing countries and pi-racy on the high seas at oil choke points.6 (Political unrest is a particular concern to the U.S. The four primary oil exporting countries to the U.S. are: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Four of the five countries have either unstable governments or governments hostile to the U.S.);7
• The rate of global economic growth;
• Currency valuations (as a currency devalues, the relative price to import oil will increase, thus lowering demand); and,
• China and India’s efforts to address concerns regarding its growth and inflation rates. (China and India are becoming such large oil importers that any change in their import requirements will have a large impact on oil price and availability.)
While these issues deal with oil as a fuel, what often isn’t considered when oil demand is discussed is the other uses for petroleum.
Oil is a resource too valuable to burn. It is used in diverse industries such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, sporting goods, power distribution and tire manufacturing. There is a petrochemical behind almost everything on a store shelf, even on food shelves. The fertilizers used in food production and insecticides to protect crops against unwanted pests are derived from oil. An in-crease in oil pricing also translates to increased costs of thousands of other goods and services.
The Obama administration has removed some of the restrictions to oil exploration but it may be a case of “too little, too late.” Many of the giant rigs used for off-shore oil exploration have moved on to jobs in Brazil and Nigeria that will last up to three years. Oil is hovering around $100 per barrel and some industry experts believe that the price will increase to as much as $120 per barrel.
When the price will start to take off depends not only on how much exploration is allowed but when the world’s economy starts to improve. With the global economy in a slump, the demand for energy goes down. With an oil-based economic recovery, demand will increase with increased manufacturing, transportation and power generation.
At current rates of production and reserves, there will be a natural gas surplus for years to come. If there are no surprises (political, economic, etc.), the world will experience a natural gas glut for the next ten years. Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) is the only way to transport large amounts of natural gas where pipelines are not available. For the foreseeable future, LNG will be readily available and it will be cheap. This is good news for consumers, but not for exporters. LNG is a direct competitor with alternative energies and low LNG prices makes it difficult to exploit renewable energy technologies without subsidies. China is also using sources such as shale gas in their energy mix, which will keep the cost of gas down as well.
LNG also is helping to drive another nail in the coffin of the “Global Warming” movement. Burning LNG has its share of environmental critics. They look at LNG as just another polluter that will add to an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
However, countries that are utilizing LNG in their energy mix are losing their appetite for greenhouse gas carbon capture and storage. Countries such as China have not expressed an interest in signing any international accords on Global Warming. Their use of LNG to finance their economic development makes them and other developing countries tend to turn their backs on the entire issue.
Even before the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan, the future of nuclear power was in doubt. While a few nuclear plants that were set for decommissioning already have been shut down, the rest of the plants currently in operation will stay in operation. However, licenses for new plants are in doubt. Also, regulatory requirements and long startup times, as well as the current political climate, add to the already substantial startup risks. The looming problem in the nuclear debate is what to do with the spent fuel.
The storage of spent fuel—nuclear material no longer strong enough to power a plant—has always been a problem. The nuclear material that was in the original “atomic pile” in 1942 is still being stored in “temporary storage,” waiting for final disposition. There is no approved program yet in place to a final disposition of the 50-plus years of spent fuel currently being stored across the United States.
Below is the current energy mix for the U.S.:
Fossil Fuels: 69.6%
— Coal 51.4%
— Natural Gas 15.1%
— Fuel Oil 3.1%
Solar / Biomass / Wind: 2.3%
Fossil fuel and nuclear make up 90% of the U.S. energy mix. Elements of the environmental movement and the Obama Administration believe that the green technology that currently makes up 10% of the energy mix can quickly replace the 90% of the fuels we currently use. This is unrealistic. It is going to take 20-30 years for alternative energy to make up a sizable amount of our energy portfolio.
Hydroelectric energy raises objections over fish migrations and marine transportation. Wind energy raises concerns over interfering with migratory patterns of birds. Biomass raises concerns over creating an imbalance in agriculture, muscling out food crops for crops that would be used to make ethanol and synthetic fuels.
Solar energy causes concerns over efficiency and land use. If the nation’s energy needs could be supplied by solar, as some advocates believe, the entire south-western region of the United States would be covered with solar panels. For all its problems, solar holds out the best hope for replacing conventional fuel sources as the method for driving the world’s economies.
China’s Solar Energy
The country poised to lead the world in advanced solar technology is China. China is on an aggressive pro-gram to develop solar technology for the future. Many experts believe that is one of the reasons China is stocking up on rare earth minerals, as it is a component in many alternative energy devices, including the next generation of solar collectors.
As with anything, the more you do something, the better you get at it. China, in its race to increase the share of solar energy in its national energy profile, will end up with better and cheaper collectors and storage batteries due to sheer volume. It will bring down the cost of production, offsetting OPEC’s influence in world affairs. China will become the champion of alternative energy car technology. Other countries, including the U.S., will fall behind and into the second tier of technology with a large negative impact to its economy.
One source of alternative energy that holds promise is space-based solar energy. Solar energy is thought to be more easily captured in space because there is neither atmospheric nor cloud interference and it can operate twenty-four hours a day. Space-based collectors also would not take up any land area. The collectors could be tethered to earth via monocarbon filaments and the generated electricity sent down by cable.
An alternative method would be to have the collectors in geosynchronous orbit and the energy transmit-ted back to earth via microwave. Neither technology is science fiction. They are both feasible, though very ex-pensive at this time.
One utility, however, believes that this technology is closer than most people imagine. Pacific Gas and Electric hopes to draw power from space-based collectors and deliver it to customers in California.The company has an agreement with Solaren,8 which will convert the power into RF (radio frequency) waves and transmit it back to earth to a receiving station in Fresno County. The energy would then be converted back into electricity and distributed through PG&E’s power grid. The California Public Utilities Com-mission recently approved the plan.
A Train Wreck
The world’s energy future is heading toward the proverbial train wreck. Currently, there is no geological shortage of energy; there is only a shortage predicated on political agendas that cater to special interests groups. In the future, though, this may not be the case. With oil getting scarce, nuclear power falling from favor and developing countries having a greater need for energy, more supplies are needed.
Governments are not helping the situation. They are sequestering available energy resources in the name of “Global Warming,” wildlife protection, etc. No single energy source can fill the gap, so a true energy mix is needed. There are no quick fixes to the problem.
Proverbs 24 teaches us that “A wise man has … many advisers.” Nations would be wise to seek the opinions of many people for ways to solve the coming energy crisis, rather than rely on government to provide a single solution to the problem. ♦