Alternative Power Sources are Coming, But Not Before Fossil Fuel Costs Reach Greater Heights

Alternative power sources have been in the news for years, with many exciting developments, but won’t be available in time to prevent much higher fossil fuel costs.  If you “google” terms like “solar cell developments” or “wind power trends”, or just pay attention to the daily news, you will see glowing accounts of new developments in alternative energy sources.  New developments in alternative energies have been trumpeted to the world for decades, but we see few effects on our daily lives (or bills).  This is understandably frustrating, and even more so when fuel costs are rising as they have recently (in my area a 33% increase in a 16 week period in the spring of 2008).  So why is it taking so long for all these wonderful ideas to become “real”?

Fusion appears feasible, but will need at least two to five decades to provide significant amounts of power.  Fusion sounds great, and has been too often touted as the next “free energy”.  As new large scale power generation technologies like fusion are developed, however, current timelines indicate they will be later than we need, and will certainly do little to offset rapidly rising fossil fuel costs, even if they settle to a more gradual rate of increase. The ITER project (link) (link) in Europe expects a working production power plant not much before 2050.  Smaller projects including grassroots efforts based on Dr. Bussard‘s work are also in progress, with high expectations but uncertain timelines. 

Solar technology, which is unlikely to ever produce enough energy to sustain current levels of energy consumption, may come along a bit sooner and fill a part of the gap, but the inexpensive technologies covered frequently in the press won’t be ready to deploy in significant quantity for at least another two to three years, and will take a decade or more to become widespread under the best of conditions.  It is interesting to note that a lot of progress was made during the 1970’s and 1980’s oil shortages in North America, but the projects either faded away or were dropped when cheap fuel returned. 

Wind power will fill another part of the gap, but will probably cover less than 10% of electricity needs a decade from now.  Massive projects are under way in Europe and the United States, and more are planned.  Demand is more stable in those countries than in developing nations like China, but wind power will still not be able to substitute significantly for fossil fuels in the next decade, and perhaps two.

Large scale implementation of alternative energy sources can’t be expected before some time around 2020.  While a lot of investment is being made in alternative energies, the payback for such investments is usually expected in ten years, if all goes well.  The flurry of investment since the late 1990’s, therefore, is unlikely to begin to pay investors back until around 2010, and that will be through buyouts by larger corporations with the capital to build large scale production facilities.  Such facilities usually require 6-10 years to construct and put on-line, further underlining the idea that alternative energy on a scale that will make difference won’t be available until 2015 and beyond.

While energy demand is growing fastest in the developing world, the money to develop non-fossil-based energy sources is in the developed countries.  The new energy technologies will benefit most the developed countries that can pay for them, but are perhaps most needed by developing countries that need non-polluting energy options instead of the mostly-coal fired plants they are currently building.  I expect to see the inequities and the division between rich and poor increase as the undeveloped countries experience serious overpopulation, the developing countries grab for any quick and cheap energy source they can find to supply their economic growth (no matter how inefficient and polluting), and the developed countries struggle to maintain their standards of living.  Pollution and climate change will be common to all, however, except that the poorer countries will have much less ability to do anything about them.

Get ready for volatile and climbing energy prices over the next one-to-two decades.  Since, even under the best scenarios, it appears new energy technologies will not be sufficiently implemented for at least one to two decades, petroleum-based energy will very likely reach much higher costs in the meantime, pulling substitutes such as coal along with it.  That means that the world will need to cope with major energy shortages in the next 15 years or so, and makes a strong case for ramping up conservation efforts.  Will we have a worldwide recession triggered by high energy costs?

It is likely that the need for energy conservation will become much greater in the next few decades.  Given the time it will take to implement renewable energy sources and new energy saving technologies, it is apparent that energy use per capita, especially in high consumption areas like North America, will have to come down, and probably a lot more than people expect.   I expect that energy prices will be much higher than today, and standards of living in the developed countries will be significantly decreased, before practical replacements for fossil fuels come on line.  Of course, lower standards of living will provide less incentives for immigration, and greater incentives for the adoption of alternative and renewable energy sources – perhaps that’s the better “side of the coin”.

In any case, the events of the coming decades will be interesting to see.  As always, I welcome your comments.

 Interesting reading:
Renewable Energy,
Bison and Wind Power, Ernest Callenback, ch. 10 of “Bring Back the Buffalo”, University of California Press
Alternative Energy Sources, 1992, 1. Winteringham, F. Peter W., Energy Use and the Environment, Lweis Publishers, Ann Arbor, MI, links assembled by P. Tran, The University of Utah


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