Arnold Kling  

Energy in 2050

Shylock Was Robbed... Gary Becker on the Minimum Wag...

Ron Bailey looks at an article by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera.

Nocera suggests, assuming heroic conservation measures that would enable affluent American lifestyles, that "conservative estimates of energy use place our global energy need at 28-35 TW in 2050." This means that the world will need an additional 15-22 TW of energy over the current base of 13.5 TW.

...Biomass could supply 7-10 TW of energy, but that is the equivalent of harvesting all current crops solely for energy. Nuclear could produce 8 TW which implies building 8000 new reactors over the 45 years at a rate of one new plant every two days. Wind would generate 2.1 TW if every site on the globe with class 3 winds or greater were occupied with windmills. Winds at a class 3 site blow at 11.5 miles per hour at 33 feet above the ground.

By process of elimination, Nocera's arguments suggest that only solar power will be able to meet our energy needs in 2050. That sounds plausible to me (I know nothing about fusion power, which is an alternative that Bailey does not discuss). My guess is that some time in the next 15 or 20 years, the cost of solar power will be the major determinant of energy prices, just as the cost of oil is today.

If technological progress in solar power is slow over the next 20 years, then it is hard to see how we can avoid a rise in the relative price of energy. However, if progress is sustained, then once we reach the point where solar power is the marginal source of energy, I would think that the relative price of energy would start to trend downward.

My best guess, actually, is that by 2050 we will be using more energy than Nocera predicts, at a cost per watt that is at or below today's cost, adjusted for overall price changes. I think that another 40 years of improvements in solar technology ought to do that.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
ErikR writes:

I believe he underestimates nuclear.

A moderate nuclear plant does generate about 1GW, as he apparently assumes. But large nuclear plants generating 5GW are not uncommon.

30TW of world power divided by 5GW per plant comes to 6000 nuclear plants in the world. If the world population is 10 billion, that is 1 power plant for every 1.7 million people. In other words, one nuclear power plant for each medium sized city. That does not seem too difficult.

The main problem with this scenario is irrational fear of safely-built nuclear power plants. Other problems are third-world built power plants that do not use modern safe designs (eg., Chernobyl), and that many of the modern designs produce significant amounts of high-grade fissionable materials (could be used to make bombs). These problems are not impossible to overcome -- there are already designs that have been tested that produce minimal amounts of high-grade fissionable materials and that have numerous safety features that make a serious accident virtually impossible.

dearieme writes:

Fusion is always 40 years away - or it has been ever since I started reading about it, ca 1960.

Curt Gardner writes:

This story only deals with the next five years, but indicates that there is a shortage of materials for solar power panels:

The fragile economics of solar power could be thrown into jeopardy by a severe global shortage of the basic material used to convert the sun’s rays into electricity.

Industry experts warn that a worldwide shortage of poly-crystalline silicon will not ease in 2008, as some expect, but could continue for at least another five years.

From the Financial Times, Nov 20.

Matt writes:

Or, we could end up with much less affluent lifestyles.

Regarding biodiesel, I have seen calculations that 15,000 square miles (One USA Lake Mead) could produce enough algae to power almost all of our energy needs (as of 1995).

So, just engineer algae to be usable, then turn lake Mead into one massive, smelly, deoxygenated cesspool.

ed johnson writes:

I wish I could be as confident as you that solar power technology will advance as you predict.

Technological progress is just impossible to forsee. Sometimes it just marches on even longer than seemed possible, as in the continuing success of Moore's law, decade after decade. Other times it comes out of left field...very few people predicted the internet.

Other times it pretty much stops---our transportation system isn't much different than it was 40 years ago after we build the interstate highway system. Cars and planes are safer and a bit more fuel efficient, but we really can't get from here to there any faster now than we could then, and jetsons-type advances, from personal jetpacks to routine space travel, are nowhere to be seen.

Buzzcut writes:

Illinois gets about 90% of its power from nuclear. This was a problem back in the 90's when the cost of nuclear power was high because of mismanagement, but is now a great benefit since mangement has much improved. In a state with powerful unions and trial lawyers, the cost of power is merely average.

It doesn't seem to me that the path to nuclear power domination in Illinois has been all that difficult. Nuclear has gone from 0 to 90% market share in 40 years.

So, if the will were there, I don't see why the US couldn't be using much more nuclear power in 45 years. It isn't a matter of engineering, or financing. It is a matter of politics.

Karl Lembke writes:

Jerry Pournelle likes the possibility of placing solar power satellites in orbit and having them beam energy to earth as microwaves. A microwave power density of 10 mW/cm^2 would work out to 100 megawatts per square kilometer. You won't convert all of that back to usable electricity, but at 10% conversion, you'd still get 10 mW/km^2. 35 TW of electricity could be transmitted through 3.5 million square kilometers of receiver arrays. You can shrink the size of the arrays needed by increasing the conversion efficiency, boosting the power density of the beam, or both.

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