How to face the exponentially increasing energy demand?
Updated: Jan 10
Energy is the ability of a physical system to perform work. Without energy, we are not able to do any work. We need energy to move and to allow our world to move. Energy is present in many forms: heat, light, motion, electrical, chemical, etc. Our economic system needs a gigantic amount of energy to allow us to do multiple activities and sustain our actual lifestyles. We need energy to drive, fly, communicate, etc. Basically, our energy sources are based on fossil fuels. However, some types of low-carbon and renewable energies are being investigated as alternatives to fossil fuels. In this post, we will start by introducing the use of energy in our world and then we will show the alternatives to fossil fuel energies.
Energy use in today’s world
Energy consumption in the EU-28 is distributed as follows:
38% for buildings (residential, commercial, etc.).
33% for transport.
26% for industry (manufacturing, mining, textile, etc.).
3% for agriculture and other activities.
Types of energy used in our today’s world
Mainly fossil fuel sources are used today to produce energy. Indeed, in Europe for example, petroleum is used in many sectors such as transport, petrochemistry, fret, aviation, heating, refinery, industry, and agriculture. Worldwide, transportation methods depend 90% on petroleum. The figure below shows an analysis of the energy consumption in kilojoules and by type worldwide (from 1994 to 2019).
According to this figure, renewables (hydro and wind power) and low carbon sources (wind power, nuclear, etc.) use in energy generation is very low compared to fossil fuels mainly coal, natural gas, and oil. The use of fossil fuels enhances the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), etc. Energy consumption based on fossil fuels leads to the emission of 92 million tons of CO2 per day.
Low-carbon and renewable energy sources
Renewable and low-carbon sources emit less GHG compared to fossil fuels. However, the main issue with renewable energies is the fact that they are considered diffuse energies as opposed to fossil fuels which are known as concentrated energy. Thus, generating energy thanks to solar sources for example is largely harder (high cost, large spaces needed, more materials needed, etc.) compared to energy generated by fossil fuels.
The table below shows the investigated and existing alternatives to fossil fuels with their main advantages and downsides.
6 g of CO2/KWh
Small spaces needed compared to the huge quantities of produced energy (load factor: 60 to 90%. This factor is equivalent to 20-90% for coals’ centrals and 10-15% for solar panels/ farms).
Lifetime: 60+ years.
Radioactive wastes: 31% with low radioactivity (in United Kingdom and Germany, they are considered as non-radioactive), < 69% with low to mean radioactivity, only 0.2% of nuclear wastes have high radioactivity
Damage to natural spaces and competition with agriculture
6 g of CO2/KWh
Soil submerging under water and population evacuation
20 - 50 g of CO2/KWh
Very large spaces needed to allow implementation of solar farms à Soils erosion and artificialization
Lifetime: 30+ years. Up to 90% of materials used in solar panels are recyclable.
10 g of CO2/KWh
Implemented on land or water. Less space needed compared to hydro and solar
The whole parts of a wind generator are recyclable. Only the wind turbines are still nonrecyclable. This is under study and research.
For coal, CO2 emission is of 800 to 1000 g of CO2/KWh
For natural gas, it is of 400 g of CO2/KWh
In front of the global environmental crisis – climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, soil degradation, generalized pollution, tensions over energy and raw materials – humanity is aiming for renewable and low-carbon technologies. However, these new technologies consume high resources (soil, raw materials, etc.), are sometimes difficult to recycle, and are too complex compared to existing systems.
So, today, the question of energy abundance must be clearly considered. Determining whether it is still possible and desirable to slow down or even stop the exponential growth of the global economy is today a major question. Reconciling the preservation of the planet and the race for growth with sustainable development is not an option anymore.
At the same time, it is necessary to decode the question of energy and overcome the climate challenge. It is today obvious that to contain global warming, humanity must give up on fossil fuels. A part of the solution (after slowing down the global economy and changing our consumers’ behavior), is switching to low-carbon energies and renewables to maintain a part of the services currently provided by fossil fuels.
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