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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

energy future need

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

The percentage of energy the world gets from zero-carbon sources has been flat for 20 years, Pielke, Jr. noted. “In 2014, 13 percent of the world’s energy came from carbon-free sources — mainly hydro and nuclear,” said Pielke, Jr. “That 13 percent hasn’t changed in 20 years. If you want to actual stabilize carbon dioxide – then that 13 percent needs to be above 90 percent.”

Achieving the target of atmospheric concentrations of 450 parts per million while meeting business-as-usual energy demand requires one gigawatt — the size of one nuclear reactor — of zero-carbon new energy every day.

“That reality is uncomfortable and challenging,” Pielke, Jr., said, “but we are moving toward high-energy planet very fast.”

Joyashree Roy, professor of economics at Jadavpur University in India, said while efficiency gains are to be encouraged, energy demand is growing faster in developing economies like India. In Calcutta, for instance, total energy use is expected to grow by 62 percent by 2025.

To put that energy demand in context, Roy pointed out that in India, only 60 out of the 365 days in a year are considered “workable” based on World Health Organization standards. Out of several adaptation solutions, the only one that could improve the workers’ productivity was providing air conditioning. Currently, only 10 percent of work places are air-conditioned, and that percentage is expected to grow rapidly.

“Let’s speak the truth,” said Roy. “High energy consumption is inevitable.”

Jesse Ausubel of The Rockfeller University cautioned against thinking that the rise of the rest means energy consumption at levels exceeding that of the West. While energy consumption will continue to grow, “later adopters” such as China and India will consume at lower levels because they build leaner, more efficient systems.

In the United States, the absolute use of over many materials, including steel, paper, water, have peaked. The rate of growth for US electricity is also declining, according to Ausubel. Right now, India and China have rapidly increased energy consumption, much like the United States did in the 20th century, but because they are later adopters, their use of energy can also be expected to decline.

“We have to be cautious about what we mean by a high-energy planet,” said Ausubel. “We could very well have a high-energy services planet without using large amounts of materials like petroleum.”

Whether projections for long-term rising or declining energy consumption, David Keith, a professor at Harvard University, said that nothing is inevitable. “I think we are extraordinarily bad at making predictions,” he said.

Our track record for making accurate predictions is “indeed terrible,” said Roger Pielke, Jr., but added that, no matter how uncomfortable, we ought to work toward the world we want to make. Energy access is currently not part of the Millennium Development Goals, for instance.  

Pielke, Jr. also argued that the twin challenge of expanding modern energy services and mitigating climate change necessitates a frank discussion of taboo technologies like nuclear, CCS, and geoengineering as well as adaptation measures.

“I would rather spend more time shaping our energy future rather than predicting it,” said Peilke, Jr. 

David Keith noted that rising overall consumption will have large environmental impacts above and beyond climate.

“I agree we need to move toward 90 percent zero-carbon energy, and I also think that we should avoid becoming carbon monomaniacs and understand there are lots of other environmental consequences and impacts that come from energy use,” he said. “If we are carbon monomaniacs we might not take seriously other impacts of changing the way we make energy, like land use.”

Photo Credit: Future Energy Growth/shutterstock

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Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 28, 2014 3:43 am GMT

The developing world can avoid the need for hundreds of gigawatts of new generation capacity by embracing a more efficient solution for air conditioning.  The method is only applicable for coastal population centers, but that includes a sizeable portion of the world where use of air conditioning is projected to soar.

The solution involves constructing a network of high capacity “heat pipes” linking district cooling centers with a set of large undersea heat exchangers.  The “heat pipes” in this case are not the simple passive devices used to carry heat away from hot spots in electronic devices. They are actually pairs of pipes.  One carries gaseous CO2 under moderately high pressure (40 – 50 atmospheres, or about 750 psi).  The other carries liquid or supercritical CO2 under higher pressure (70 – 80 atmospheres).  

The liquid CO2 is allowed to vaporize and expand at the district cooling station.  Heat exchangers there provide large volumes of low temperature cooling water that can be circulated to nearby buildings. Meanwhile, the gaseous CO2 flows back to the underwater heat exchangers, where it condenses.  The condensor temperature is around 10 degrees C. That corresponds to ocean water at a typical depth of two to three hundred meters.

The efficiency of this type of pressurized CO2 heat pipe for transporting low temperature thermal energy is such that the disrict cooling stations can easily be over ten miles from the condensers.  The system is actually a form of heat engine. Rather than consuming power, it should produce enough power at the district cooling stations to cover all pumping losses.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 28, 2014 2:41 pm GMT


This is an interesting idea. Do you have any documentation for it?

Cornell University has a lake source cooling system that replaced a big load of air conditioners on campus, but they just use regular water.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 28, 2014 8:52 pm GMT

Documentation?  What’s documentation? You mean my comment above doesn’t qualify? 

Joking aside, I do want to put together a few slides and charts to illustrate the concept and to quantify the energy budgets involved. But haven’t done so yet.

The genesis of the idea is work that Jim Baird — who posts here — pointed me to on “2nd generation” OTEC systems.  Rather than using a large cold water pipe to pull a Niagara Fall’s worth of frigid water from 1000 meters down in the ocean, these systems put the condenser for the OTEC engine at depth. A pipe brings the vapor phase of the working fluid down to the condenser.  A separate, smaller pipe carries the liquid phase back to the boiler at the surface. With CO2 as the working fluid, two pipes together are a small fraction of the size of the cold water pipe they replace.  Pumping losses are correspondingly small.

I was stunned to realize just how much more efficient a CO2 phase change loop could be for moving low temperature thermal energy over distance compared to the usual water loop.  I thought of the air conditioning problem for coastal cities in the developing world.  Some back-of-the-envelope figuring suggested that a 10 mile separation between boiler and condenser would be no problem.  The system scales well, because bigger, higher capacity pipes mean less flow loss per tonne of fluid moved.

I’d love to see this concept picked up by the Gates Foundation  — or any other organization with the resources — and used to help developing nations.  I think it can potentially make a difference for both climate change and economic development.  (People are more productive in buildings with air conditioning.)

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Jul 28, 2014 9:40 pm GMT


It reminds me of the investigations into using supercritical CO2 for turbines instead of steam. Sc-CO2 is a very interesting working fluid which I find encouraging in the pursuit of carbon utilization opportunities. 

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jul 31, 2014 10:08 pm GMT

Indeed an interesting idea. But inevitably, deployment would provoke some push-back from environmental interests concerned about the impacts of thermal pollution.


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jul 31, 2014 11:07 pm GMT

Ausubel raises an important point. It seems that developing countries potentially could leapfrog generations of technology and adopt newer, more efficienct energy systems. But there are at least a couple of problems with that expectation.

One is that newer technology also may be more expensive — in terms of up-front purchase or capital costs — than older ones. For a variety of reasons, it’s not always feasible for customers to make purchases on the basis of lifecycle costs. Inflation — often present in developing countries — tends to discount the net present value of future costs, in which case lifecycle calculations may not be influential. So less-affluent customers may choose to settle for less efficient technology.

How realistic is that problem? I’m not sure. But I recall reading a couple of years ago that while half of the new coal plants being built in China are of the most advanced, efficient design, the other half are an older, dirtier and less efficient design.

I also know that India excels in developing products that don’t work as well as the best available but that are far cheaper and thus affordable by poor people. For instance, an Indian company recently launched the Aakash tablet computer. A reviewer noted “[its] specs are much less impressive than other budget Android tablets, but then it is primarily aimed at bringing the experience of the internet to those who would not otherwise be able to afford the hardware to access it.” Compare the less than $50 price of the Aakash with the $400 price an Apple iPad Mini and it’s not hard to guess which one poor people are likely to buy. 

It’s also a fair guess that many more Indians (and Chinese et al) are likely to buy Tata’s “world’s cheapest car” — the Nano — for $2000 than a Tesla Model S for $70,000. The Tesla screams from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat, has every amenity and top safety ratings, and gets an EPA estimated 90 mpg equivalent. The tiny Nano gets 45 mpg from a puny conventional engine that strains to get to 75 mph, has no A/C or other amenities, and provides the crash worthiness of a paper bag.

The other notable problem with Ausubel’s suggestion is that it overlooks the likelihood of rebound effects. That is, energy saved by one means is likely to be ‘re-spent’ on other uses, so greater efficiency tends not to lead to any net reduction in overall energy consumption.

All things considered, Pielke’s argument is persuasive. The world is on track to greater energy use. Any dent in greenhouse gase emissions or other forms of pollution from fossil fuels is going to have to come from introducing new, cleaner energy technologies whose real costs — without subsidies — are at least no greater than those they need to replace.

So more energy innovation is needed, and faster. Achieving that is not just a matter of throwing more money at R&D, though sometimes and in the right ways that may help. But it will require reforming the conventional processes of R&D and innovation to get more and better results, qucker, and at lower cost. A strategy for doing that is presented here.


Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Jul 31, 2014 11:51 pm GMT

One of the good signs from the figures in the article is the flat level in electricity demand world wide. This is due to more efficiant appliances and the widespread use of domestic solar panels. If we can keep developing this trend and start converting our transport to renewable electricity we can ween ourselves away from oil which is a diminishing resource with a volatile price. Coal is a dirty fuel and needs to go as soon as possible.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Aug 1, 2014 12:35 am GMT

I can’t say there would be no pushback from “environmental interests”.  I can say that there should be none, because it is thermal anti-pollution in most respects.  It not only avoids any heat produced for power generation in the surface environment, it removes heat from the surface environment and discharges it into the deep ocean.

The thermal energy discharged at the deepwater condenser has little or no effect on sea life, because the discharge depth is well below the zone where sunlight penetrates or much of anything grows.  It doesn’t even affect the temperature of waters on the seabed, because the water that it warms will rise.   It won’t rise all the way to the surface, because it remains colder than the surface water.  It will rise to the depth in the ocean thermocline where it encounters waters of its own temperature. It will thicken that layer of the thermocline somewhat, but anything that lives there won’t notice any change.

There is alway some opposition to anything.  I’m sure there’s a movement out there that’s firmly against motherhood and apple pie.  Whether an opposition movement gains traction depends on two things: (1) the actual validity of its case — though that’s arguably a minor factor; and (2) support from incumbant interests that perceive a threat to themselves in the thing that’s being opposed.  As in all things political, it’s a matter of “whose ox is being gored”.

In the case of opposition to meaningful action on climate change, it’s obvious where the “oxygen” for opposition comes from.  There are literally trillions of dollars in fossil fuel reserves, held by powerful incumbent interests, that are at risk.  On the other hand, using cold seawater to provide efficient cooling for coastal cities in developing nations threatens no established interests that I can see.

The closest thing to a threatened incumbent interest that I can see would be suppliers of conventional AC systems, who might have been anticipating a boom in business as more people become able to afford / require their product.  However, switching to a different form of cooling doesn’t actually threaten those businesses.  On the contrary.  It’s a different technology at its heart, but it has enough in common with conventional AC technology that the specialized expertise of conventional AC suppliers will retain their value.  By making the product more attractive and affordable, it would accelerate the anticipated boom. 

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Aug 1, 2014 2:16 am GMT


Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Aug 1, 2014 2:18 am GMT


Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Aug 1, 2014 2:21 am GMT


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Aug 1, 2014 4:06 am GMT

Roger, different political factions have different notions of “should.”

Just about anything that tinkers with the oceans (or any other pre-disturbed) environment triggers negative feedback from organizations such as Greenpeace and others. There isn’t that much known about deep ocean life, except that is exists, and so at the least there likely would be demands for further research and impact assessments before any such technology would be deployed.

It is possible that the government of India, and of other developing countries, would more or less ignore such resistance given their priority concern for economic development. They have no qualms about building more coal-fired power plants for instance. But there are various means through which environmental organizations have proven canny at harassing such development efforts.

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