The GeoPolitics of energy

The Tri-City Herald, Dr. James Conca, February 12th, 2017

If you think we’ve been doing a reasonable job of curbing fossil fuel use in our electricity production worldwide, you would be mistaken. While coal use in America and Europe has decreased because of cheap natural gas, coal use worldwide is still increasing.

Oil has also been increasing globally. Coal and gas account for two-thirds of human electricity production and petroleum provides 95 percent of our transportation fuels.

Non-hydro renewables have certainly grown but are still extremely small with respect to fossil fuel growth, accounting for less than 5 percent of global electricity production.

Nuclear and hydroelectric, the only energy sources that have ever displaced a significant amount of fossil fuel, are also growing moderately, mainly in China, and together make up about 29 percent of electricity production.

Washington is the biggest exception to this fossil rule, being 78 percent hydro, 9 percent nuclear, 6 percent renewable, 3 percent gas and 4 percent coal. Our last coal plant is going away soon.

Into this energy reality steps our new president. Mr. Trump supports an all-of-the-above energy mix with a heavy tilt toward fossil fuels. He wants to eliminate all regulations and has no regard for climate change. Pretty much a repeat of the 20th century.

But the new administration will have little effect on our energy mix. Fracking and other new technologies have allowed America to produce more oil and gas than ever, and we are no longer dependent on foreign oil. We import less oil than at anytime in the last 30 years, and most of what we import is from Canada, not Saudi Arabia.

Renewables under President Trump should be fine. States like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Wyoming and North Dakota are overflowing with wind energy jobs and money, so it is unlikely Congress will reverse course. Energy Secretary Rick Perry likes wind and nuclear.

However, while we are busy switching from coal to gas, the developing world sees coal as their savior.

There are 1.5 billion people that have no access to electricity whatsoever. 2.4 billion people still burn wood and manure as their main source. And about 3 billion more people will be born in the next 30 years.

This is a lot of people who will require a lot of energy. Just to survive. It turns out that lifting someone out of poverty requires at least 3,000 kWhs/person/year.

The 7.5 billion people of the world produce about 20 trillion kWhs per year. The billion people in the developed world use half of that, and the rest of the world uses the other half.

But if the world’s population grows to 10 billion, we will need at least 30 trillion kWhs per year to eradicate global poverty and its evil stepchildren, war and terrorism.

That’s an additional 1,200 GenIII nuclear power plants. Or 3,000 coal-fired power plants. Or 10,000 gas-fired power plants. Or 10 million large wind turbines.

Besides costing between $10 trillion and $20 trillion, how can we provide this much energy to a developing world that has almost nothing — no infrastructure, no expertise and no resources?

By giving them coal.

This is not what we usually think these days, but of all energy sources, coal requires the least infrastructure to construct, transport and operate. It’s just that simple. This conundrum was what the Paris climate conference was all about, and we have not figured out an alternative.

Coal is the obvious energy source to bring a country’s starving people into the modern world. After that, they may have the luxury to care about the planet.

Just ask China.

Dr. James Conca is senior scientist for UFA Ventures of Richland, a science contributor to Forbes, and together with co-author and spouse Dr. Judith Wright, author of “The Geopolitics of Energy: Achieving a Just and Sustainable Energy Distribution by 2040.”

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