About The Author
D. R. Prescott has written a novel, a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, a collection of essays, planetarium show/display scripts, two family histories, technical articles and business plans as well as written for and edited several newsletters.
Awards and published work include Writers' Journal, Long Story Short, Taj Mahal Review literary journal, The Orange County Register, Writer's Digest, and Writing.com and four books among other challenges.
As a former aerospace executive and planetarium program director, Prescott currently writes and explores life in Orange, California.
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Since 2008, Prescott has been a regular contributor of
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O R D E R   T O D A Y !
Oops, What Energy Problem?
By D. R. Prescott

The energy problem comes down to one thing—numbers. There are numbers of dollars involved in energy, numbers of people employed in the energy industry, numbers of technological alternatives and numbers of special interests trying to push public opinion this way or that way. Those are all important numbers but the problem is not those numbers; it is more fundamental; the problem focuses on the number of people on the planet at any given time and how much energy they use.

In 2000, each person on Earth used 65,654,210 (or, 65.7 million) Btu’s (Btus are British Thermal Units), which means that a lot of people used very little and some used a lot. That number is calculated by dividing the total World Primary Energy Consumption per year (Btus consumed) by the total people on the planet in 2000. There were — according to the United States Census Bureau (USCB) — 6,085,976,743 people (6.1 billion) alive in 2000. Multiply the people by the average use per person per year and you get 399.6 quadrillion Btus used around the Earth in 2000. If you like to see big numbers, that is about 399,569,995,100,000,000 Btu’s.

As human beings acquired more and more electronic gadgets, drove new gas-guzzling vehicles and added more people, world energy use, as a civilization, increased 5.8 million Btu’s per person per year to 70.1 million, in just four years. Note that the rise was more than merely adding people and things using energy, it was augmented by developing countries improving their standards of living; more energy per person is normally required to sustain a higher standard of living. Using a least squares fit over ten years of consumption data; energy use might reach as high as 89.0 million Btu’s per person per year by 2050 if increase in individual consumption continues unabated.

Increasing population exacerbates the problem. Not only are we using more energy per person, human population grew at an alarming rate between 1950 and 2000. In 1950, 2.6 billion people scrambled over the planet. By 2000, humans nearly doubled to 6.1 billion people. Today, we are at 6.8 billion, headed, according to the USCB, to 8.3 billion by 2030 and probably adding another billion by 2050, over a 50% increase from 2000.

Worse, these projections are tempered by lower USCB 2000-2050 population growth rates than the 1.63% average per year during the 1950-2000 period. 2000-2050 growth rate forecasts are considerably less at an average of 0.74% per year, less than half the growth rate of the last fifty years of the 20th century. The USCB expert forecast uses a gradually decreasing growth rate over fifty years reaching a low of 0.46% per year by 2050, much lower than anything experienced in over a hundred years. The problem gets bigger if the USCB assumptions about population growth rate are too low.

In the United States, we use five times the world average energy consumed per person per year. Putting the numbers another way, U. S. citizens consume 25% of the world’s energy supply with only 5% of the world population. In a more disquieting manner, the average U. S. citizen consumes 21 times more energy per person per year than the average citizen of India or Africa. We are not the only ones. Other developed and developing countries are very competitive in the energy consuming contest.

Narrowing our timeline, where might we be by 2030, just twenty years from now, if we let things go as they are? The answer to that question is complex and depends on a number of things of which the number of people and use per person are the root drivers. Here are a few major issues:

1. Production capacity keeping ahead of demand (all forms of energy: fossil fuel, bio-mass, hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, geo-thermal, solar, fuel cell, etc.)
2. Climate Change: Reducing carbon emissions at the same time energy demand is rising.
3. Lead-times for new alternative sources of energy to come on line.
4. International and local political climates slowing decision-making and implementation of alternative energy projects.
5. Citizens, particularly in developed and developing countries, not willing to significantly reduce their standards of living or take drastic measures for limiting population growth.

Most of us don’t care where the power comes from as long as we flip a switch and the lights come on or start a vehicle and it takes us where we want to go. People concerned about possible adverse effects of a changing climate care and are pushing to reduce human reliance on fossil fuels. Proponents of one form of clean energy or another generally appear to see ultimate solutions in their favorite alternatives. The energy production problem can be broken down into two distinct categories: carbon-based energy and alternative energy. Today, over 85% of world energy produced is carbon-based. Less than 15% is picked up by alternative sources.

To gain a clearer perspective, it is time to venture into the treacherous waters of making projections with some cautious assumptions about 2030:

1. The United States Census Bureau 2030 world population estimate of 8.3 billion people is a reasonable place to start.
2. The average energy use per person worldwide is assumed constant at 70 million Btu’s per person. This is in spite of indications that the level of use per individual could go up much higher by 2030 if we continue on our present course. This will make consumption projections tend to be lower rather than higher, thus more conservative. It makes a big assumption that we will find ways to contain consumption per person worldwide or develop extraordinary efficiencies and/or conservation measures. While unlikely, this assumption that our consumption estimates are conservative.
3. Alternative energy production more than triples by 2030 from what it is today. That seems ambitious but ardent alternative energy proponents might consider it too conservative while others may scoff for any number of plausible reasons.

With those three vital assumptions, we can now see what happens when we do the math. Take 8.3 billion people times 70 million Btu’s per person per year gives us 581 quadrillion Btu’s required to keep our civilization humming by 2030, compared with the 399.6 quadrillion Btu’s consumed in 2000. That is a 45% increase in world primary energy demand in only thirty years. It gets worse.

Assuming alternative energy will help reduce the percentage of carbon-based sources, tripling alternative sources by 2030 results in reducing carbon-based energy from 85% to about 71% of the total. At first look you might say, “Great! That is progress on emission reduction targets and reducing the fraction of carbon-based sources over 14%.” Wait, look a little closer…

Multiplying the 581 quadrillion Btu 2030 demand by 71% (our estimate of carbon-based fraction of total world energy by then), we get 412.5 quadrillion Btu’s needed from carbon-based sources.


Instead of actually reducing carbon-based energy sources, we would have to increase fossil fuel production by 12.9 quadrillion Btu’s over 2000 levels just to stay abreast of increasing population by 2030. Instead of reducing greenhouse emissions, we might actually increase them, potentially negating any agreed world emission reduction programs and possibly magnifying the climate change dilemma, perhaps disastrously. This is in spite of conservative assumptions about energy use per person and tripling alternative clean energy production.

These numbers highlight the quandary we find ourselves in—population is increasing resulting in energy demand rising, making reducing the actual amount of carbon-based fuels unlikely in the next 20 years unless we do something very different and soon.

Data to calculate these numbers are readily available at no cost from the USCB and Energy Information Administration. Download and play with them yourself until that creepy feeling slithers up your spine as you begin to worry about your grandchildren’s future.
© Copyright 2010 D. R. Prescott (donprescott at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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' Copyright 2008 D. R. Prescott (UN: donprescott at Writing.Com). All rights reserved. D. R. Prescott has granted Writing.Com, its affiliates and syndicates non-exclusive rights to display this work. Questions or Comments? E-mail to prescottdc@sbcglobal.net
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