Hydrocarbon fuels have an exceedingly high energy flux density meaning a small unit volume produces a large amount of energy. Nuclear is the only energy source of higher energy flux density than hydrocarbons but today’s nuclear fission processes may only be used for a few more decades because of nuclear waste issues coupled with public perception & policy. The energy flux density of solar, wind, geo-thermal, tidal, and the like is thousands of times lower per unit volume of collection apparatus than hydrocarbon fuels.
Fossil fuels are finite. The speed at which they are consumed is a factor of worldwide per capita energy use. Now, developed countries like the U.S., Canada, Europe, China, Russia, South Korea, Israel, and Australia are using 80% of world energy capacity. Demand is accelerating and can only continue to accelerate as the Internet and travel teaches people and countries of less developed means that they should aspire to greater means which takes more energy. Few professionals in the energy forecasting business have taken this into consideration but there is no denying this and no turning back. We must either increase energy levels for less developed countries and people or decrease it for developed societies to achieve a perceived “social equilibrium.” Needless to say, citizens of developed countries will not allow regression.
By mid-century fossil fuel reserves will no longer be economically and technically viable due the vast increase in international energy demand and the associated increases in extraction/production costs as more unconventional fossil fuel reserves must be taped coupled with environmental constraints and regulations.
Thus, an entirely new source of energy must be proven, demonstrated and commercialized over the next 2 decades or we risk destabilizing the security of all nations in the world and the health of their citizens. This energy must be extremely powerful in terms of energy flux density, abundant, clean, safe, and leave no long term waste products. The only realistic solution is fusion. There is no other scientifically conceivable energy source except the concept of matter anti-matter annihilation which is hundreds of year’s away, if ever, on Earth, as a means to produce energy.
And we must begin now because in 3 to 4 decades two significant events converge. As described above we deplete “proven reserves” which drives the cost of fossil fuels up enormously. And in the United States this is coincident with the retirement of the vast majority of our generation capacity due to their life cycle maturity or age.
Short of this the only solution is a massive reduction in worldwide population to pre-industrialization 1700s level of 750,000,000 people worldwide. Today we project a 2050 population of 9 billion.
Is Solar the solution?
A recent Forbes Magazine article suggests that the U.S. will meet 50 to 100% of its electrical energy needs in 20 years. Is this likely or even possible? Follow this link for an analysis of this article and its drivers.
No. Not even close. To provide 100% of today’s U.S. generation capacity through photovoltaic cells would require 29.3 Billion 1 square meter panels. If we could manufacture 1 square meter panel per second it would take 929 years to manufacture them. It would further require 4.4 million, 1 mWh battery modules contained in a #40 container. Assuming the modules were made in China based on lowest cost, that would require 587 trips by fully loaded cargo ships transporting 7,500 containers each. The cost of the battery modules alone is $3.3 Trillion and the battery life cycle is less than nine years. If we were to assume the total electrification of the American transportation system, the number of required panels is 117.2 billion and the number of required battery modules is 17.60 million. Wiring and infrastructure is totally unrealistic. Land acquisition or lease costs must be added. And each and every panel must be washed six times a year due to dust and pollen accumulation which significantly cuts down power production.
Furthermore the above “Retirement of Plants” chart shows there is no need to replace our current generation capacity over the next 20 years. Electricity produced from coal is the least expensive followed by natural gas and nuclear. The only market drivers are political and relate to the controversy on climate change and the derivative green energy myth.
Are Bio-fuels the solution?
No. It takes considerably more “input energy” to grow bio-fuel crops than is provided by the sun and the caloric energy from the final ethanol is far lower than the amount of energy used to grow, harvest, transport the by-products and distill the fuel. The industrial corn cycle as an example is not renewable, and is unsustainable by a wide margin of 2.3 to 7 times. No process changes can make this cycle more viable.
Follow this link to “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle by Tad Patzek, Ph.D., Chairman of the Petroleum and Geo Systems Department, University of Texas, UT”
Is wind a solution?
No Wind is not a solution for material levels of power. Wind can produce 2W/m2 of land consumed by a typical wind farm. Wind is not consistent. The same battery storage issues apply as for solar. The capital cost for wind turbines is high. Maintenance and operational costs are high because of the start and stop nature of wind as well as its rapid change in direction. Several major wind farms have been decommissioned early because of poor performance and high operating costs. Follow this link to a full description of wind energy science and technology. Follow this link to a discussion of the practicality of wind energy and its limitations.
Is conventional nuclear a solution?
Yes, nuclear power can supply material amounts of power. In theory it could provide 100% of all grid distributed power in America within 20 years. Clearly nuclear fission should be the bridge to the next major transformation in energy production. We need to build more nuclear plants, not de-commission existing ones. Nuclear power works and is competitive in terms of the cost of generated power, and is extremely safe and reliable. However it has suffered over the years from poor public acceptance based on the misconceptions people have over safety issues. The origins of the anti-nuclear movement come from the early anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons movement. Unfortunately the nuclear power industry suffered “guilt by association” in the early days and the industry did not attempt to properly overcome this through PR efforts. Follow this link to a thorough non-scientific discussion on nuclear power, its benefits and safety.