How Much Energy Do We Really Need?

In the early 1920s, when my grandparents were just small children, only about 40% of Americans had access to electricity. Over the course of a generation that number reached close to 100%. Today, inexpensive, reliable and plentiful access to electricity is something that most people in OECD countries take for granted. I was reminded about this when I attended the recent annual meeting of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, a group that decidedly does not take electricity for granted. The meeting was opened by appealing to core shared values: “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."

Yet billions of people around the world today do not have electricity in their houses. And while most projections see energy use expanding greatly in the coming decades, they also expect 1 to 2 billion to be living without electricity even by 2035. That may very well be the future we get. But it doesn’t have to be the future we work toward. To the extent that we allow such forecasts to constrain our debates over global energy and climate change mitigation, we do a disservice to the global poor, whose future well-being will undoubtedly require more-robust energy access.

The US Energy Information Administration, for example, projects that world energy consumption will increase by the equivalent of about 4,000 power plants in 2035 (about 1.7% per year) — or from 500 quads to 770 quads. A “quad” is a quadrillion BTUs, or about the same energy produced over a year by 15 1-gigawatt power plants, e.g., nuclear, coal or gas. While 4,000 new power plants worth of energy consumption sounds like a lot, after taking projected population growth into account, by 2035 global per capita energy use increases only by about 23% (data from the World Bank and the United Nations). In other words, from 2010 to 2035 global per capita energy consumption is projected to grow from about the average per capita consumption of Chile today to that of Croatia today, which is not a big change.

Advancing global human development requires that we ask different questions.

Rather than starting from today and asking how much energy the world might consume in 2035, let’s turn the question upside down. Let’s postulate different levels of energy access and efficiency for 2035, and ask what it would imply in terms of required energy supply, applying an approach that policy wonks call “backcasting.”

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