The Future of Energy

Last Monday night I attended a seminar about the economics underlying various forms of energy given by Steve Koonin, chief scientist at British Petroleum. BP has invested a sizable amount of money in renewable energy as a hedge against the eventual disappearance of their fossil fuel reserves. Steve spoke quite objectively on the alternatives. Wind he feels will turn into a reasonable energy resource in remote areas where the need for power, wind speed, and cost of energy delivery are all high. However, wind will not be a big source of energy for the future — maybe only up to 5 percent of the total. Coal he feels could be a more viable contender if the carbon sequestration issue is handled properly. Tests are now ongoing to pipe exhaust gases underground. On nuclear, BP does not build or own any nuclear power plants, but Steve still feels more nuclear power makes sense in a lot of locations around the world. Regarding biomass, BP has a $500 million subsidized program at Berkeley and one other location in the U.S. This program includes new fuels like butanol, but there is currently no distribution system.

Steve’s analysis shows that the proven global oil reserves available today will last us long beyond 2050, and that unproven reserves may be available in an amount equal to proven reserves. Interestingly enough, he talked about fusion energy — probably because there were some fusion researchers in the room — and about the use of algae to create fuel.

All in all, it was an interesting seminar. There seem to be few immediate solutions to our energy dilemma, but many areas of research and opportunities for the future.

— Bob