Global and National Needs for Energy

The modern world survives – and prospers – by the use of prodigious amounts of energy. Our global consumption of fossil fuel energy has increased nearly 8 fold in the last 60 years although our global population has only increased 2.5 times. That trend is projected to continue.

Our fossil fuel resources are finite so this rate of usage has a limited life – oil is likely to peak in a few years, if it has not already peaked, and coal will follow suit in a few decades. Peaking does not mean that supply necessarily immediately declines but it does indicate that significant growth is no longer possible.

Even the nemesis to many, nuclear fission energy, has its problems with safety, as evidenced by recent events in Japan, and waste management issues that are still unresolved after decades of effort. New units are likely to require the use of reprocessed fuel and/or plutonium with its complex security requirements to prevent it from being used to make ‘bombs’.

   The Magnitude of the problem

The size of the need for new energy sources is so large that it is difficult to grasp.

The US Energy Information Agency estimates that 14 TW must be added to the world’s energy supply by 2050. An appreciation of the meaning of adding 14 TW is given by the scale of the required construction shown in tabular form below.  Building these by 2050 would mean 250 fission or 470 coal/gas fired plants per year: that means completion of 5 to 10 coal power plants every week.

Small power sources appeal to many people, including vendors and financiers, because it lowers financial risk. Solar- and wind-power appeal for their modest power rating and first cost, but at real cost that is high when subsidies are included in the calculation. Biomass has desirable aspects, but is essentially a means of processing sunlight and requires the large surface areas that characterize solar methods in general.  None of the above can be considered to be base-load sources of energy and all have significant impact on land use.  Simply said, small power sources are not the solution and may even increase the problem for they do not enjoy economies of scale nor do they provide base-load energy sources.  Only fission and fusion can provide this base load need.  And fusion is clearly the cleanest & greenest of these sources ... and the safest!

   New Base-load Sources are key to the energy solution                                     

The maintenance of our current level of energy consumption, let alone its growth to satisfy the needs our needs and those of less developed economies, will require a new base load energy source. All of small energy sources, biomass, solar, and even wind energy are likely to grow too slowly to even meet the rapid decline of oil resources that will begin in the next few years. These small forms of energy generation generally have low energy return for energy invested and will not meet the future global demands for energy. Nuclear fission takes years to permit, fuel availability is problematic, and severe containment, public acceptance, security, safety and waste management issues abound. Our only real hope for a large new energy source is to rapidly bring fusion power on line. 

Another way to look at the problem is to look at the sources of energy for various industrial sectors as seen in the figure below.  The column at the left shows the sources of energy while the column at the right shows the consumers of that energy. The total reliance on fossil fuels (the top three left ovals) is alarming.  We urgently need a diversification into other energy sources and the only viable source is fusion.

Hal Helsley,
Apr 7, 2014, 5:43 PM