The energy challenge is of direct concern to the whole planet. People with growing power of influence are becoming directly involved. Here are some undeniable facts.

In demography, by the middle of this century the population of the Globe will be close to ten billion; an increase of more than 60%. The per capita wealth growth would be even higher. And such wealth will inevitably lead to much higher energy demand consigning many of today’s hotly debated topics to a subservient priority.

In face of the emerging evidence of the damage already done to the environment momentum is building to act. But short and long-term challenges are often confused. There is evidence of feeble co-ordination and ineffective or non-existent global governance institutions and if there are relevant communications strategies, they look very poorly conducted indeed. The public is confused and has doubts about adequacy of scientific knowledge and thus unhappily opting for precaution. This lack of knowledge is compounded with an increasing politicisation of science with potentially disastrous consequences.

Two additional factors making the situation worse are firstly the perception that energy supply is and will be controlled by powerful corporations and nations and secondly the long planning horizon to introduce structural changes. Such changes would have profound consequences on the ways societies function today. The world at large will not remain indifferent, with the current model of rampant capitalism under increasing pressure.

There is a need for a middle century vision for the energy challenge. Something the informed citizen of the world can identify with. A 2050 “vision of hope” should be a CO² free non-exhaustible energy production and use. In setting out this vision, one should separate production of energy, from its distribution providing flexibility in policies and strategies. The output energy would be either in the form of electricity or pure/hybrid hydrogen. The process of production should be as independent as possible of distribution that will evolve according to social needs. There are sustainable technologies such as hydro, various forms of solar, fission and fusion nuclear, geothermal and wind for the production of electricity. Most of them face formidable obstacles. For example continuous silicon and other material films with higher efficiencies need replace inefficient silicon solar panels but R&D in this field require important support. Mirror thermal/solar technologies must make further inroads. Nuclear fission and fusion technologies should progress again but need serious political capital to lower the barriers. Hydrogen production for energy storage and secondary transformation are still in infancy. Production units using these technologies would be fully integrated on a global network. There is no doubt about the difficulties, demands for scientific and political leadership and the gigantic amount of resources required.

Focusing output on only two usable forms of energy, electricity and its derivative hydrogen/oxygen would boost efficiency and introduce economies of scale. An integrated global production network would be the backbone of the distribution system.

Consumers would be seen in two groups. Entities directly linked to the electricity grid and others that need to store energy, as they would operate disconnected from the grid. Given the advantages of direct use of electricity, the scheme would set basic principles. In transportation all long-range continental traffic should be made on land, chiefly by rail. Linked to this , short-distance mobility would be ensured by electric vehicles but urban and sub-urban public transport would be the main instrument for mobility for the public. All other directly linked consumers such as buildings, roads and industrial plants would be using electric energy. Non-directly linked consumers would be vehicles with long-range mobility in need of one extra stage of energy conversion, as they will be using hydrogen power plants. Such vehicles, e.g. ships and airplanes, would be used for intercontinental and perhaps interplanetary transport. Of course, given the dramatic structural changes required in society, long-term comprehensive education campaigns coupled with appropriate fiscal policies must be developed. In moving towards such a vision, there is also an urgent need for effective global institutions. Existing ones have recognised this and drive changes but unless large nations give guidance, provide implementation plans and unreservedly support them very little will change.

Finally, even at this longer term horizon, we must make an important observation. Pace of change must seriously take into account margins of elasticity of the global system to absorb it; consequently starting the transition in parallel to a communication campaign at the earliest is imperative.

Author: K. P. Vlahodimos, Director General of the Global Plant Sciences Industry Federation, retired.

November 2008

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