We are today standing at a crossroads of sorts when it comes to the energy that our nation needs to fuel its continued economic growth and prosperity. While the relatively inexpensive fossil fuels on which we have depended for more than a century are in finite supply, there is an infinite supply of renewable sources of energy, including nuclear, solar, wind, bio, and water. However, in many cases, tapping these unlimited supplies of energy will cost considerable funds — particularly in the near term — to develop and exploit.
I personally have a great interest in the promise of biofuels and the potential role they will play in supplying an increasing portion of our future energy needs. If you have any doubt at all about their importance, I would simply ask you to follow the money. Exxon Mobil — the largest petroleum refining company in the world — is placing bets on the future of biofuels, most notably its recent investment of more than $600 million in a new photosynthetic algae biofuels program run by Craig Venter.
In this first in a three-part series on a long-term energy solution for our nation, I consider where we’re at today — the good news, and the bad. In the second part of the series, I survey the major alternative sources of energy and consider their promise (and potential failings) for the future. Finally — in the third and final part of the series — I will drill deep into biofuels, specifically algae-based biofuels.
The Current Situation
When you talk about energy in this country, you’re mostly talking fossil fuels: petroleum, natural gas, and coal. According to Energy Information Administration data, the contribution of the various sources of energy in this country in 2009 breaks out as follows:
- Liquids 38.2%
- Natural gas 23.8%
- Coal 22.5%
- Nuclear: 8.4%
- Hydro: 2.6%
- Renewable Non-Hydro: 4.5%
The liquids category includes biofuels and other conventional (petroleum) and unconventional (shale oil, oil sands, etc.) liquid fuels; however, biofuels currently constitute only about 1 percent of the total. Looking at the big picture, we currently rely on fossil fuels for about 83.5 percent of our energy needs. So-called alternative, renewable sources (non-nuclear and hydro) currently provide for less than 5 percent of our energy needs today.
The Good News
It’s clear that no matter what we do in the near term, we will depend on fossil fuels for the vast majority of our energy needs for years to come. Fortunately, there will still be plenty of reserves available for us to tap for the foreseeable future. According to Energy Information Administration projections, by 2030, the contribution of the various sources of energy in this country will break out as follows:
- Liquids 36.6%
- Natural gas 22.1%
- Coal 23.4%
- Nuclear: 8.3%
- Hydro: 2.6%
- Renewable Non-Hydro: 7.0%
In addition to the greater role of renewable non-hydro sources of fuel (increasing from 4.5 to 7 percent of the total), biofuels also comprise a greater share of the liquids category than they do today — growing from about 1 percent of the total to about 5.4 percent of the liquids category. Compared with fossil fuels, this is still a very small portion of the total. However, it will continue to grow as new sources of biofuels are discovered, and current sources are further developed and exploited.
The Bad News
Of course, our dependence on fossil fuels is unsustainable in the long run. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, and they are being depleted at an ever-increasing rate as the world’s hunger to feed the needs of industry and day-to-day living continues to grow. According to the Department of Energy, world energy consumption from all sources is projected to increase from 472 quadrillion BTU in 2006 to 552 quadrillion BTU in 2015 and 678 quadrillion BTU in 2030. This constitutes a total increase of 44 percent from 2006 through 2030.
There is no shortage of oil industry watchers who believe that we are rapidly approaching worldwide peak oil production, that is, the point at which future oil production will be in permanent decline. Our nation reached this point in 1970 — since then our oil imports have risen dramatically to make up for the decline in domestic sources of oil. Globally, it is currently anticipated that we will reach peak oil production sometime within the next 40 to 100 years. Of course, no one knows for sure.
We must therefore work to develop new, alternative sources of energy to be ready for the day when fossil fuels are in short supply — or prohibitively expensive. In the next part of this article, I will explore the major alternative sources of energy to determine which hold the most promise for our nation.