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Changing landscape for our energy hungry world

The overall increasing of energy expected in the coming 30 years and the change in the mix of sources. Data are expressed in TJ (TeraJoule). By 2050, as shown in the graphic, 50% of energy will be derived from renewable sources with major reduction foreseen for oil as many transportation consumption shifts to electrical power (generated via renewable sources). Image credit: Global Energy Perspectives 2022. McKinsey

In spite of all the talking about becoming energy savvy, reducing our power consumption, humanity is bound towards increasing its energy dependence. The graphics included in the 2022 Global Energy Perspectives released by McKinsey shows this clearly. In 2050 it is expected a global use that is almost the double o the one we had in 1990.

On the one hand this is a good news, since energy use goes hand in hand with increased wellbeing. On the other hand there are plenty of ways that we could decrease the use of energy without affecting our wellbeing. A stupid example? I was in Costa Rica last 2 weeks and at the hotel restaurant they served bottled water that came from … Italy! If there is a Country that has plenty of water that is Costa Rica, why in the heavens they would bring water all the way from Italy (10,000+ km away)? Just because it makes for a fancy restaurant, I presume. Every time I go to the US in Summer time I freeze because of the temperature they set in the hotels and meeting rooms, to the point that I have to remember to bring a sweater along… A few degrees in cooling can make a significant difference: setting the temperature to 18°C or to 24° or 27° means increasing energy use (assuming an outside temperature of 30°+in an average insulated house) of 30% or 20%.
Hope you agree with me that all of this does not make any sense, it does not make our life any better and it wastes a lot of energy.

However, looking at the graphic we can see that the forecast for 2050 predicts a significant reduction on the use of fossil fuels. We depending on them today for over 60% of our needs, in 2050 the percentage will be below 30%. Notice the downward peak in energy use in 2020, courtesy of the pandemic, but also notice the sharp rebound expected in the coming 2-3 years that will push the use of fossil fuels close to 70% of the total, a bad omen for the climate. Part of this is a consequence of the geopolitical upheaval we are currently experiencing. Replacing gas in the short term can only be done through the reactivation of coal plant to produce electrical power and this in turns means less use of renewable (to be -economically- affordable coal plants have to work around the clock, unlike gas plants that can be trimmed on demand).

The forecast places nuclear (fission and fusion) under the “other” form of energy (eventually they translate into electrical power) and you can see that the growth is very slow although by 2050 they might be doubling their contribution. Building a nuclear plant takes some 10 years, a fusion plant is not yet in sight (in industrial terms). I guess we would be lucky to see a functioning fusion plant in 2040 and even assuming it will be feasible , ramping up will take a few decades.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.