America’s Energy Future
Let’s have something like a numbers-free post, for a change, shall we? (Not entirely, of course–that would be wrong…)
I’m getting ready to make the case that the Department of Energy’s EIA and the International Energy Agency may have erred as drastically when estimating future energy consumption for the OECD nations as they did when estimating for the developing world.
Actually, their error (if error it was–I will have to show it, not just note it) seems to be not recognizing that the OECD is separating into different segments, rather than converging towards one profile. Looking at GDP by weight seems to indicate that countries contributing about 40% of the OECD’s GDP are growing much like developing countries–that is, if the U.S. is grouped amongst these hard chargers.
Before I make bold predictions and show you numbers that prove (or disprove) my case, I should list my assumptions. This is especially true as my assumptions conflict with those of other, more prestigious prognosticators.
Many seasoned forecasters think American GDP will grow to about $88,000 per person by the end of this century. I think it will be much higher. My reasons could be captured by just calling me a Kurzweil-ophile. Ray Kurzweil, inventor of great technology and author of a book that really got me going (The Singularity Is Near), charted a course for three technologies that will drive this century–genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it highly.
I believe that each of these technologies will be to the 21st century what electricity was to the last–transformative. To have all three working in the same century, and with synergistic flows between each and all of them, means that the world coming out of this century will be dramatically different from the world that entered it. (again…)
It seems clear to me that America is a very strong number 1 in genetics and nanotechnology and a respectable second or third in robotics, behind Japan and South Korea. I think this will be an ‘American’ century in many ways–without in any way changing my opinion of the fantastic potential for growth in the developing world. They will do great–but the Yanks will do better, IMO.
The implications for energy consumption are two-fold: First, robotics will be a major consumer of energy. Getting us off the shop floor (where we never belonged) will use a lot of electricity. Building automated roads (or even dedicated lanes) for fleets of heavy trucks driven remotely, as Predators are flown today, will require energy expenditure in their creation that is probably equivalent to the energy used in building the interstate highways in the first place.
The other two technologies will be less energy intensive in their application.
However, the combined effect of the three will be a return to growth in the fashion currently enjoyed by the developing world. And boy will I have egg on my face if I’m wrong. But I think American GDP per person will be close to double that which is predicted for it by the end of this century–and maybe even more. (I do hope per capita income rises proportionately…)
If that is the case, energy consumption will rise at a fairly high level. There will be room for per capita consumption to drop modestly, as it has in recent decades, as innovation takes the edge off our hard driving ways. And we now have benchmarks to shoot for in Northern Europe, where they live quite nicely while using half as much energy per person as we do. But consumption will still grow, partly just due to population growth–the U.S. Census Bureau thinks there will be 571 million of us in 2100. Hope we’re consuming green energy by then.
This rosy future isn’t guaranteed. We could piddle away this opportunity. Fears (some quite legitimate) about nanotechnology, unions fighting robotic encroachment, religious resistance to genetic changes could move progress off shore. This will slow down progress, as others will have to catch up to where we are before moving ahead.
But if we stay more or less true to our conception of what this country is meant to be–a place where innovation is welcomed and change accepted, and manage to avoid the antics of rent-seekers and those who believe their hard-won success entitles them to perpetual riches, we’ll be okay. Better than okay, actually.
3000 Quads is about energy for the 21st century. The world’s population is now estimated to peak at between 9 and 10 billion people somewhere around 2075. If they use energy at the same rate as the average American, they will consume 3,000 quadrillion btus. That isn’t written in stone–the Danes use half as much energy per person as Americans and they have a pretty good life. The developing world could aim for a Danish lifestyle instead of Yankee over-exuberance. But if it comes to pass, then we face a dilemma. If most of that energy is provided by burning coal, we face something close to disaster. My name is Tom Fuller. I work at a solar power company called Sungevity, a premiere provider of solar power to homeowners in the United States.
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