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This article supercedes an earlier work, "World Energy and Population: Trends to 2100". Compared to that paper this article offers a more comprehensive look at the world's evolving energy supply picture and confines its projections to the first half of the century. Also unlike that earlier work, this article makes no assumptions about changes in human population due directly to reductions in the world's energy supply. At the end of the article I will briefly examine one highly probable effect the decline in total energy would have on the quality of human life.
The analysis is intended to clarify a future energy supply scenario based purely on the situation as it now exists and the directions it shows obvious signs of taking. The model is not intended to show the effects of any of the large-scale changes in direction that have been proposed to cope with declining oil and gas supplies or rising CO2 levels. Solar or nuclear power "Manhattan Project" style efforts, for example, are not considered. Treat this scenario as a cautionary tale: given the known resource constraints in energy, this is the likely outcome if we don't take collective action but rather just continue business as usual.
This article will not present any prescriptive measures for either supply or demand management. You will not find any specific suggestions for what we ought to do, or any proposals based on the assumption that we can radically alter the behaviour of people or institutions over the short term. While the probability of such changes will increase if the global situation shifts dramatically, such considerations would introduce a level of uncertainty into the analysis that would make it conceptually intractable. The same constraint holds true for new technologies. You will not find any discussion of fusion or hydrogen power, for example.
Throughout history, the expansion of human civilization has been supported by a steady growth in our use of high-quality exosomatic energy. This growth has been driven by our increasing population and our increasing level of activity. As we learned to harness the energy sources around us we progressed from horse-drawn plows, hand forges and wood fires to our present level of mechanization with its wide variety of high-density energy sources. As industrialization has progressed around the world, the amount of energy each one of us uses has also increased, with the global average per capita consumption of all forms of energy rising by 50% in the last 40 years alone.
This rosy vision of continuous growth has recently been challenged by the theory of "Peak Oil", which concludes that the amount of oil and natural gas being extracted from the earth will shortly start an irreversible decline. As that decline progresses we will have to depend increasingly on other energy sources to power our civilization. In this article I will offer a glimpse into that changed energy future. I hope to be able to provide a realistic assessment of the evolution of the global energy supply picture, and to estimate how much of the various types of energy we will have available to us in the coming decades.
The analysis in this article is supported by a model of trends in energy production. The model is based on historical data of actual energy production, connected to projections drawn from the thinking of various expert energy analysts as well as my own interpretation of future directions and some purely mathematical projections.
The current global energy mix consists of oil (36%), natural gas (24%), coal (28%), nuclear (6%), hydro (6%) and renewable energy such as biomass, wind and solar (about 2%). Historical production in each category (except for renewable energy) has been taken from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2007. In order to permit comparison between categories I use a standard measure called the tonne of oil equivalent (toe). Using this measure, well-known conversion factors for thermal and electrical energy production permit the different energy sources to be easily compared.
We will first examine the energy sources separately, applying the development parameters that seem most appropriate to each. For each source I will define as clearly as possible the factors I have considered in building its scenario. This transparency will allow you to decide for yourself whether my assumptions seem plausible. We will then combine the individual energy analyses into a single global energy projection.
The model was developed as a simple Excel spreadsheet. The timing of some significant energy-related events and rates of increase or decrease of supply were chosen through careful study of the available literature. In some cases different authors had diverging opinions on these matters. To resolve those situations I have relied on my own analysis and judgment. As a result the model has remained open to the influence of my personal biases. I make no apology for this potential subjectivity; such scenarios always reflect the opinions of their authors, and it is best to be clear about that from the start. Nevertheless, I have made deliberate efforts throughout to be objective in my choices, to base my projections on observed trends in the present and recent past, and to refrain from wishful thinking at all times.
The Excel spreadsheet containing the data used in this model is available here.