Winners and Losers in the Great, Global Energy Struggle to Come
Monday 27 June 2011
Elvin Batz, an installer with SPG Solar, checks the pontoon structure and solar panels on the company's Floatovoltaics floating solar array, stationed in an irrigation pond in Petaluma, California, April 6, 2011. Building solar arrays that can float allows for clean energy opportunities in places that have no land to spare, but abundant water resources and intense sunshine. (Photo
A 30-year war for energy preeminence? You wouldn’t wish it even on a desperate planet. But that’s where we’re headed and there’s no turning back.
From 1618 to 1648,
Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years’ War. It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet. Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them, and the countries that run on them. The question will be
Why 30 years? Because that’s how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel, and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development. Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process. Some will not. And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game. At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.
This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest. For giant oil companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, an eventual shift away from petroleum will have massive economic consequences. They will be forced to adopt new economic models and attempt to corner new markets, based on the production of alternative energy products, or risk collapse or absorption by more powerful competitors. In these same decades, new companies will arise, some undoubtedly coming to rival the oil giants in wealth and importance.
The fate of nations, too, will be at stake as they place their bets on competing technologies, cling to their existing energy patterns, or compete for global energy sources, markets, and reserves. Because the acquisition of adequate supplies of energy is as basic a matter of national security as can be imagined, struggles over vital resources -- oil and natural gas now, perhaps lithium or nickel (for electric-powered vehicles) in the future -- will trigger armed violence.
When these three decades are over, as with the Treaty of Westphalia, the planet is likely to have in place the foundations of a new system for organizing itself -- this time around energy needs. In the meantime, the struggle for energy resources is guaranteed to grow ever more intense for a simple reason
The Existing Energy Lineup
To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world’s existing energy portfolio. According to BP, the world consumed 13.2 billion tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010
Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years’ time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat. Achieving a 40% increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.
Two barriers stand in the way of preserving the existing energy profile
Meanwhile, the accelerating pace of climate change will produce ever more damage -- intense storm activity, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, lethal heat waves, massive forest fires, and so on -- finally forcing reluctant politicians to take remedial action. This will undoubtedly include an imposition of curbs on the release via fossil fuels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, whether in the form of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade plans, emissions limits, or other restrictive systems as yet not imagined. By 2041, these increasingly restrictive curbs will help ensure that fossil fuels will not be supplying anywhere near 87% of world energy.
The Leading Contenders
If oil and coal are destined to fall from their position as the world’s paramount source of energy, what will replace them? Here are some of the leading contenders.
However, nuclear enthusiasts (including President Obama) are championing the manufacture of small “modular” reactors that, according to their boosters, could be built for far less than current ones and would produce significantly lower levels of radioactive waste. Although the technology for, and safety of, such “assembly-line” reactors has yet to be demonstrated, advocates claim that they would provide an attractive alternative to both large conventional reactors with their piles of nuclear waste and coal-fired power plants that emit so much carbon dioxide.
Wind and solar
Biofuels and algae
X the Unknown
From time to time, I hear of even less familiar prospects for energy production that possess at least some hint of promise. At present, none appears likely to play a significant role in 2041, but no one should underestimate humanity’s technological and innovative powers. As with all history, surprise can play a major role in energy history, too.
When the War Is Over
Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place
Were I to wager a guess, I might place my bet on energy systems that were decentralized, easy to make and install, and required relatively modest levels of up-front investment. For an analogy, think of the laptop computer of 2011 versus the giant mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s. The closer that an energy supplier gets to the laptop model (or so I suspect), the more success will follow.
From this perspective, giant nuclear reactors and coal-fired plants are, in the long run, less likely to thrive, except in places like
Whichever countries move most swiftly to embrace these or similar energy possibilities will be the likeliest to emerge in 2041 with vibrant economies -- and given the state of the planet, if luck holds, just in the nick of time.
Copyright 2011 Michael T. Klare
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs