World Futures: Electricity And Other Energy – Part Four

Los Alamos World Futures Institute
In part three of this series we finished by implying that solar power would be insufficient to meet the energy needs and that nuclear is an alternative in the quest to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels.
If this is an unacceptable approach, then the lifestyle and organization of humanity will require significant changes. A good question is why?
Using the United States as an example, the country has a total of 2.3 billion acres of land. Of this, 6.1 percent is developed land or rural residential land, 15.2 percent is crop land, 34.3 percent is range and pasture land, and 32.3 percent is forest land.
If you do the calculations, this leaves 0.277 billion acres unaccounted for and solar acreage only requiring 0.147 billion acres, not including gasoline replacement electricity. Seems very obvious – let us go solar now! Nuclear is not needed. Or is it?
In 1798, English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population. He was concerned about the exponential growth of the population, the linear growth of agriculture and that humanity, as then known, would run out of food.
He predicted that the world population would double every 25 years. In 1800, the estimated population was one billion people. If Malthus had been correct, today’s population would be about 217 billion. Comparing it to today’s real estimated population of 7.7 billion, the error of Malthus’ projection model is apparent. But we have to cut Malthus a little slack because he did not have a smart phone.
The point of this observation is that we cannot predict the future highly accurately, especially changes in the environment and the evolution of humanity. If one does a superficial observation of previous predictions about the future of earth and humanity one finds several, if not lots, of predictions of near-term extinction.
In my observation of these predictions, they do not accurately account for the factor of time and the growth of technology. More importantly, they seem to embrace a preservation of the current way of life. What changes is humanity willing to make to adapt to a new way of life?
Some examples are appropriate. China has 2.371 billion acres of land, a population of 1.386 billion people, and uses 6.2 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year.
The numbers for India ate 0.812 billion acres, 1.339 billion people, and 1.5 trillion kWh consumption per year.
For the United States, it is 2.3 billion acres, 0.327 billion people, and 3.95 trillion kWh.
Finally, for Senegal, the numbers are 0.0486 billion acres, 0.0159 billion people, and 0.0033 trillion kWh. In consumption of electricity per person, here are the numbers:
  • Country             kWh Consumed per person per year
  • China                4,475
  • India                  1,122
  • United States    12,071
  • Senegal             209
  • World                 2.674
In these numbers, the needed conversion from fossil fuels for transportation is not included. Moving to purely electricity-based transportation will require more solar and wind conversion.
Further, solar and wind farms cannot be close to or centered in the middle of populated areas. This means that the transmission line array, which causes small losses of power, must be reconstructed or routed. In short, conversion to solar and to a lesser extent wind requires a major transition that will take time.
It must be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Yet the demand to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, while debatable, is continually growing. In countries such as Senegal, new capability for capturing solar electricity can be accomplished as demand grows. But are countries such as China, India, and the United States, not to mention other post-developed countries, willing to adjust and adapt?
Converting to solar and wind makes sense for the long term existence of humanity. The resources on earth are limited when compared to the energy stream from the sun.
In the short term there is concern about climate change with much of the blame attributed to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
While this potentially can be remedied by going solar, it cannot occur quickly because of changes required in how humanity collectively lives and interacts. And, individually, what changes in the way of life are acceptable? Are you willing to do away with cell (smart) phones, air travel, personal commuting to work, imports from other continents, and on and on? On the other hand, if you live in Senegal, is an improvement in your way of life wanted?
The transition to complete dependence on solar energy can happen with advances in technology, evolutionary changes in our way of life, and the time required for it to happen.
But if one wants to eliminate, at least reduce, CO2 emissions in the short term, and alternate source of energy is needed during the transition. Nuclear can do this and, in my not so humble opinion, is the only way to accomplish the mission.
It is not a “forever” solution and we need to continue the pursuit of solar solutions.
Nuclear fuel, like fossil fuel, is limited in supply and the quest for solar must not stop. Yet if we want to “immediately” reduce CO2 emissions and gain time for solar evolution, we need to GO NUCLEAR.
Till next time….
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