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Sunday, 6 March 2011

Global energy requirements are likely to triple by 2060.

Mankind Has Always Craved Energy


   An insatiable hunger for energy has been mankind's constant companion. Over the course of history, new forms of energy have repeatedly been discovered and applied. But in each case this has had serious consequences for wider human and social development.

First it was fire. Man learned to tame fire and then to use it. This set him clearly apart from other animals and ushered in a rapid period of development. Numerous sagas and legends surrounding fire have evolved over the course of history. From Greek mythology we know of Prometheus, who played a trick on Zeus. Angered by this deceit, Zeus proceeded to withhold fire from man on earth as a punishment. However, Prometheus lit a torch from the fiery sun chariot of Helios as it sped by, hurried back down to earth and set fire to a pile of wood with his blazing cargo.

But fire anyway found its way to earth – and most likely it was through a bolt of lightning. Without this provider of heat, our fore-fathers would have remained in the "warm zones" of the Earth and would never have been in a position to migrate northward. Nor would the melting of metal and the firing of clay have been possible.

Full Steam Ahead

It was as early as 100 B.C. that the Greek physicist Heron of Alexandria described a form of propulsion which relied on steam as its source of energy. The decisive breakthrough, however, fell to Scottish engineer James Watt, who improved the steam engine design by English inventor Thomas Newcomen and had his own design patented in 1769. Indeed, it was the serial manufacturing of steam engines that marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was thanks to the use of steam power that locomotives could be built, a development that at a stroke changed the entire nature of human transportation and thereby had a decisive influence on the economy.

Oil Lubricates the Gears of the Economy

Crude oil has been one of the most important suppliers of energy to human civilization ever since industrialization. Without the "black gold," things just don't work. The first ever crude oil refinery dates back to 1859, when the American Edwin Drake extracted substantial quantities of oil from the ground via a drilling procedure. When the electric light bulb was introduced, oil initially lost its appeal. But when the automobile was invented, it reannounced itself with a vengeance, as this new form of transportation made gas (for the Americans) or petrol (for the British) a highly sought-after commodity. Ever since, it has been difficult to imagine living without this source of energy. More than a third of the world's energy requirement is met by oil, making it the undisputed number-one energy commodity. Although oil is very practical and easy to use at its final point of consumption, be it for heating or for automotive refueling purposes, transporting it to the end consumer is not unproblematic. This is brought home to us time and again whenever an oil tanker accident makes the headlines.

The Dark Side of Black Gold

One of the greatest tanker catastrophes in Europe occurred on December 12, 1999, when the single-hulled tanker Erika, sailing under the Maltese flag with a cargo comprising 30,000 metric tons (33,069 tons) of heavy oil, broke apart in heavy seas just off the coast of Brittany. As a result, 400 kilometers (249 miles) of coastline were polluted and around 75,000 birds perished in the unforgiving oil slick.

But on April 20, 2010, an event occurred that dwarfed the horror of any tanker accident. The Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded following an uncontrolled oil leakage and sank promptly. The subsequent pollution in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the leaking of oil on the seabed at a depth of 1,500 meters (0.9 miles) led to the worst environmental catastrophe of its type in the US. Following the accident, just under 10 million liters (63,000 barrels) of oil is believed to have spewed out into the sea in the first three months alone.

Merely One Hour of Global Oil Requirement

But as colossal as this oil pollution may sound, the oil spill of these first three months would cover precisely one hour of mankind's current global oil requirement. Even though this oil spill dominated the headlines around the world for a long period of time, it would be a great mistake to believe that large amounts of oil are only released into the sea as a result of tanker accidents or spectacular disasters of the Deepwater Horizon type. The oil that leaks out in numerous places around the world due to ramshackle drill heads and leaky pipelines adds up to a quite staggering tonnage.

A sad chapter in this respect is the history of oil drilling in the Niger delta. For the last 50 years, foreign multinationals have been busy extracting Nigerian oil in this area as it is extremely easy to refine. Experts estimate that approximately two billion liters of oil has so far flowed into the Niger delta as a result. Every year this leads to oil pollution on a par with the Exxon Valdez tanker accident. As a result of this notorious incident back in 1989, in which 40,000 metric tons of oil was released into the sea, 2,000 kilometers of unspoiled regional coastline in Alaska was polluted.

Driven by Water

Together with wind power, hydropower is one of the oldest applied forms of energy. Back in antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans used water wheels for the milling of flour. In the Middle Ages, large water wheels made of wood were used to power machinery in mines, smithy workshops, sawmills, grinding factories and cloth-fulling mills. Hydropower also played a crucial role in the development of the first industrial towns of Europe and the US. The first hydropower stations for generating electricity were built in 1880 in Northumberland in the North of England. The techniques used in major hydroelectric power stations today may have been perfected, but conceptually they have changed little, with various types of turbines and generators still used to produce electricity.

Around a quarter of the world's entire supply of energy is generated through hydropower. Water is, after all, clean and natural. But the hunger for electricity leads to the building of ever-larger reservoirs and ever more productive power stations, which has its costs.

China's Longest River Dammed

Although we know far more nowadays about the consequences of major dams, they continue to be built on an ever-larger scale. For example, the Three Gorges Dam in China is one of the largest river dams anywhere in the world. Work on its construction began on December 14, 1994, with a workforce numbering up to 18,000. The project involved the impoundment of the Yangtze river, and the body of the dam was finally completed on May 20, 2006. This resulted in the creation of a reservoir near the three gorges of Qutang, Wuxia, and Xiling. With a total length of 6,380 kilometers, the Yangtze river is the longest river in China and the third-longest in the world. This colossal project has inevitably led to the elimination of entire towns as well as countless villages, farms and factories. In total, just under two million people have to be relocated as part of the project.

Energy Derived From the Building Blocks of Matter

Nuclear power stations have played an important role in energy generation since the 1960s. The process of nuclear fission was first discovered in 1938 by the German chemists Otto Hahn und Friedrich Wilhelm Strassmann. The splitting of atoms leads to the release of heat energy that can then be converted into electrical energy by means of turbines and a generator.

That process typically involves the fission of the radioactive heavy metal uranium, which is stored in the nuclear reactor's fuel rods. One kilogram of uranium is enough to produce 350,000 kWh of electricity. This figure can vary a lot, as it depends on the degree of isotopic enrichment and the efficiency  of the nuclear power station. By contrast, a kilogram of oil releases about 12 kWh and produces about 5 kWh. The proportion of global energy generation accounted for by nuclear power currently amounts to around 16 percent. Germany generates 23 percent of its energy from nuclear power, Switzerland 39 percent.

Whereas in the early days of atomic energy nuclear power stations were seen as clean, efficient and cost-effective, this confidence was badly rocked by the reactor disaster at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. Some 600,000 people were exposed to strong radioactive emissions as a result of this accident. The exact number of fatalities is not known even today, but is likely to have reached several thousands. Another major headache for nuclear power stations is the final disposal of the radioactive waste that poses a threat to mankind for almost an eternity. Plutonium-239, for example, has a half-life of 24,110 years – in other words, its radioactive emissions only halve in potency once this period has elapsed.

Carried by the Wind

Without the power of wind in a ship's sails, it is likely that the discovery of America would have had to wait a considerable while. Back in the early Middle Ages, people used wind energy to drive windmills, which were mainly used to grind grain. But whereas these windmills were ponderous small towers with cloth sails, today's wind power machines are tall slender masts with three-bladed rotors. These convert wind energy into rotation energy, which is then used to produce electricity via a generator.

In 2009 alone, new wind power facilities with a total capacity of 37,466 megawatts (MW) were installed around the world, of which 13,000 MW of capacity was installed in China, 9,922 MW in the United States, 2,459 MW in Spain, 1,917 MW in Germany and 1,271 MW in India. By the end of 2009, total installed wind power capacity around the world amounted to more than 150,000 MW.

World's Energy Appetite Becomes Increasingly Insatiable

The world's annual energy requirement currently stands at around 107,000 terawatt hours (one terawatt equals one billion watts), a figure that remains very much on the rise. Experts predict that energy consumption is likely to rise to around 160,500 terawatt hours per year by 2030. Global energy needs will once again double to 321,000 terawatt hours per year by 2060. The main drivers of this development are likely to be the emerging markets and developing countries, whose average standard of living will by then have risen to closely match that of Western industrialized nations. According to the latest data released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), China's energy consumption in 2009 actually exceeded that of the US by 4 percent.

Since the beginning of the industrial era, human society has based the lion's share of its working economy on the use of fossil energy sources. Given the latest state of our knowledge, experts believe that known reserves of crude oil will last for around 40 years, with uranium lasting for 50 years, natural gas for around 60 years and coal for a rather longer 220 years or so.

Energy Supply on the Brink of Major Changes

The energy supply situation of mankind stands at a crossroads, and a number of far-reaching changes lie ahead. New discoveries and technological advances will bring about a number of targeted changes. But another likely scenario is that climate change and the dramatic growth in population – together with the corresponding increase in appetite for energy – will force a radical rethink. From today's standpoint, two trends in particular appear to be emerging: on the one hand energy savings and more efficient usage, on the other tapping into alternative energy sources such as solar energy.

The contribution to global electricity production made by photovoltaics may still be considerably below 1 percent, but its growth trajectory is steep nonetheless. Since 1988, newly installed photovoltaic capacity has increased by an average of 35 percent annually. In 2009 alone, new photovoltaic installations were put in place around the world with a total capacity of some 5,000 MW.

The fundamental question that arises, however, is whether a continual increase in energy consumption is desirable at all. Because as his energy consumption needs grow ever greater, man is interfering ever more in the workings of global ecosystems.

Energy Gluttony
 
Global energy requirements are likely to triple by 2060. The most ravenous countries of all will be those of the developing world and emerging markets, where standards of living are set to catch up with those of the industrialized nations.

107,000
terawatt hours in 2010

160,500
terawatt hours in 2030

321,000
terawatt hours in 2060

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