Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Energy worries

It's just not smart to be so dependent on oil...

Our oil reserves are being depleted and yet we have come up with no acceptable replacement. So where will we get energy in the future? And could IT have a role in the solution? Peter Cochrane explains.

Every now and again I have a travel schedule that really brings home the nature of our ever-shrinking planet. This column was compiled whilst flying Bombay-London-Washington-Charleston in just 20 flight hours. It is now possible to travel just about anywhere on our planet in less than day. But it wasn't always so and it may not be so forever, given that our present transport capabilities are all powered by oil.

Nothing packs energy density like oil when it comes to fuelling cars, trains and aircraft. But here are the problems: oil production has topped out and in the future can only decline. Only a few countries have reserves, and many of these are in the less stable regions of our planet.

Hence all forms of travel are threatened due to human conflict as well as natural depletion. Of course, alternatives could be found for surface transport and energy supplies could be conserved, and even dedicated, to air transport and strategically vital applications. But there's no guarantee either of these will happen anytime soon.

Some look to hydrogen as the future energy solution, but it is unlikely to be the panacea, as it requires a considerable amount of storage volume per unit of energy converted and is therefore unsuitable for existing aircraft and surface vehicle designs. Whilst hybrid solutions employing electricity, gas and oil for surface transport may provide a temporary respite, and extend the life of oil supplies, it isn't obvious where long-term alternatives are to be found.

My guess is that the recent 50-year rise in air and road travel may well be followed by a 50-year demise. Mine is the first generation to enjoy unlimited global travel at affordable prices and my son's generation could be the last. This will almost certainly be true if we do not find solutions to our ever-rising energy demands. For example, today China has a 20 per cent shortfall in energy supply due to rapid industrialisation. Addressing this by burning more hydrocarbons will be disastrous in terms of pollution and perhaps affect global warming.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power are seen as the great white hope by many. Unfortunately most countries don't have the ability to store the energy produced - and the wind doesn't always blow, or the sun always shine or the waves always roll. So a renewables-only energy policy could be a supply disaster as well as visually polluting. Wind farms are not the prettiest engineering achievements, for sure.

An obvious saviour could be the conversion of electricity to hydrogen in large quantities. The use of water and the creation of more oxygen could be a winner, but here I know of no studies trying to assess the impact of oxygen enrichment of our planetary atmosphere. The last time we saw a doubling of this planet's atmospheric oxygen it correlated with the arrival of the dinosaurs.

It is very hard to come up with an energy regime that does not impact the environment sooner or later. Even extracting wind, solar, tidal and wave energy may have the potential to affect the chaotic system we call weather.

As far as I can see France is alone in having the foresight to invest heavily in nuclear power to the extent that it can service around 80 per cent of national demand. In the UK and US, for example, the base nuclear load is only around 25 per cent and these countries have no new nuclear plant replacement or extensions planned. As a result an already massive reliance on overseas hydrocarbons looks set to grow. In an unstable world this is a risky strategy.

What of new technologies? Barring a miracle of realising cold or some other form of nuclear fusion I don't see anything on the horizon to save us from an energy blip. The fact of the matter is that over 30 years has been wasted since the Club of Rome report and little or no research has gone into alternative energy. What we have is the result of feeble efforts to bend and blend what we have known for decades. I suspect we need something new, something that will satisfy our needs without destroying the planet.

We have to look to our new material, bio and nanotech programmes, along with telecoms and IT, for potential solutions. What can telecoms and IT do for the energy crisis, you ask? For one, they give us the ability to telecommute and thus cut down on daily petrol usage. The problem is broadband is not as pervasive as it should be and video and audio conferencing still border on the pathetic. On the materials side, we have steels and composites that offer greater strength at less weight than what's used hitherto in our vehicles and new materials that make solar cells far more efficient and lower-cost.

The real problems are energy storage and dealing with short- and long-term peaks of demand. For sure 'smart' homes and appliances that adjust their energy demand can contribute significantly and are easy to realise by embedded electronic controllers. However, the excessive demand for mass heating and cooling brought about by sudden weather changes is far more serious and difficult to deal with.

Like many of our modern problems it is extremely unlikely that we will find a single solution to the energy crisis. It demands a coherent approach across many disciplines.

In my future I see a hybrid world of combined local and centralised energy generation, distribution and storage, with every home, office and campus assuming some responsibility and autonomy for each aspect. If we use energy based on hydrogen, we will have to convince everyone they are not living with a huge bomb in their basement and trunk of their car. But I suppose it is no worse than gasoline or butane - people don't seem to worry unduly about them!

Drafted on a BA flight between London and Berlin. Further additions complied on a Lufthansa flight en route to Mumbai. Final edit in Washington D.C. Transmitted to via a hotel Wi-Fi service.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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