Conflicting Futures

Just where are we headed as a civilization? Energy is the cornerstone of our world today, so just where we get energy will dictate an awful lot of how we live, who is rich, who is poor, where and why we go to war, etc.  Two competing views are out there and worth some contemplation.

The first (thanks, Philip Johnson, for pointing this out) is based on Exxon/Mobil’s outlook for the year 2040. In it, there is little movement from the modern energy mix:


There are a couple of things to note.  First, Exxon/Mobil is, at present, the target of several investigations into deceptive practices resembling those used by the tobacco industry to deny the connection between smoking and cancer. So they are not looking like an oracle of future change pure as the driven snow.  Second, and arguably more pertinent here, industries are not apt to look to the future and see their demise, especially a company like Exxon/Mobil, that has only downweighted the value of some of their known resources under stockholder pressure. So seeing a future powered by oil and gas like the company presently produces is, in a sense, a bit of self-confirmation (and, potentially, could reflect confirmation bias).

But before we walk away thinking this is unrealistic or hopelessly biased, keep in mind something Exxon/Mobil is likely really good at: knowing how much oil and gas might be out there.  That they think this is how the energy mix will look–and that is with the total amount of energy increasing quite a bit–should tell you that this is a possible future. Hoping for Peak Oil to save the world isn’t going to happen. Arguably, this is the future if nothing particularly transformative happens.

That something transformative will happen is the basis for the other view of the future, one advocated by Mark Jacobson at Stanford.

This future is one that, by 2050, is entirely powered by renewable energy sources. Unlike the Exxon/Mobil effort, which is trying to peer into the crystal ball and project the world as it will be, Jacobson and colleagues are trying to see what the world could be like if we take up the challenge to change it, as in this chart from The Solutions Project:


Both Exxon/Mobil and The Solutions Project envision major efficiency gains reducing the overall global demand for power from a straightforward increase, but after that there is little agreement. Oddly, Exxon/Mobil thinks there is a greater share of global energy from renewables today (~12%) than does Jacobson’s group (~7.5%). Although this is a global energy mix, by 2050 it is all electric (including transportation), so it is interesting to compare with Exxon/Mobil’s estimate of the electric energy mix today and in the future:


(Mind, there is little difference in the estimate of the total amount of energy needed, in case you wondered).

Just as it is easy to downplay Exxon/Mobil’s outlook as self-serving, it would be easy to dismiss Jacobson/The Solutions Project as an academic exercise run amok. That would be unfair; the most recent work from Jacobson’s group (related graphics from  presentation at AGU in fall 2016-or see video) looks at the mix of renewables on a country-by-country basis, considering resources in each place as well as the ability to manage the use of intermittent sources over a countrywide basis, and calculates not only the costs but the benefits of such a shift. It’s more than wishful thinking.

There are benefits to a renewable-only future beyond reduction in carbon output and global warming. Oil, gas, coal and nuclear are all extractive activities with environmental issues at their source (e.g., black lung, pollution of groundwater, habitat destruction) as well as where used (e.g., air pollution); these fuels also have significant transportation costs associated with them (and risks of spills and fires).  Although a purely renewable future also has extractive components (for instance, the need for increasing mining of rare earths for windmills), and environmental issues (e.g., solar panel construction and recycling, bird deaths), the net benefit is pretty substantial on environmental grounds. Jacobson’s group’s estimate is that the monetary cost of electricity from fossil fuels captures under a third of the total societal cost (between health costs and costs associated with future climate change).

Of course the renewable-only vision would face tremendous hurdles, not least being the creation of big winners and losers. Oil companies and oil- and coal-rich countries would resist such a shift, arguing that the up-front costs are not worthwhile while really protecting their financial outlook. But the U.S. has prided itself on tackling big problems with substantial adversaries: the Manhattan Project, the Cold War, and the Apollo Program. We’ve even put money on the line to improve the environment, stranding gold deposits to preserve farmland and passing legislation like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Americans love a big challenge, especially if it means building things. It seems the big obstacle is not technological or economic, it is political.

Arguably the difference between Exxon/Mobil’s 2040 and The Solutions Project’s 2050 is a public willing to engage in the challenge of rebuilding our energy portfolio, and perhaps all that is needed there is the emergence of visionary and dynamic political leadership. That the line between these outcomes might be so thin is, perhaps, cause for hope for those presently disturbed by the changes in U.S. government.

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