Energy Market of 2030: The End of Carbon Fuels?

See our contribution, with 15 others, to an International Economy symposium looking ahead to the energy market of 2030: The End of Carbon Fuels? Here was our contribution:

The dramatic reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over the last decade is, paradoxically, the result of the massively increased use of a fossil fuel—natural gas. The shale technology revolution produced so much low-cost natural gas, and replaced so much coal, that U.S. emissions from electricity generation have fallen to levels not seen since the late 1980s.

Over time, electric vehicles—and later, autonomous ones—could reduce the need for oil. But natural gas will only rise in importance as the chief generator of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

The Energy Information Administration projects that fossil fuels will still represent 81 percent of total energy consumption in 2030. Natural gas, EIA estimates, will be the largest source of electricity, generating between 50 percent and 100 percent more than renewables.

Sure, but don’t technology revolutions often surprise even the smartest prognosticators? Renewables have indeed been growing from a tiny base, and some believe solar power is poised for miraculous gains.

Despite real advances in solar power and battery storage, however, these technologies don’t follow a Moore’s law path. Solar will grow, but we won’t solve solar’s (nor wind’s) fundamental intermittency and thus unreliability challenges by 2030. Nor can we avoid their voracious appetite for the earth’s surface, a fundamental scarcity which environmentalists and conservationists of all stripes should hope to preserve. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos even dreams of a day when we move much heavy industry into space to preserve the earth’s surface for human enjoyment.

But shouldn’t we pay extra in land area (and dollars) today to avoid CO2’s climate effects tomorrow? Fear not. The latest estimates of the climate’s CO2 sensitivity suggest any warming over the next century will be just half of previous estimates and, therefore, a net benefit to humanity and the earth. Satellites show us that CO2 greens the planet.

Economic growth is the most humane policy today, and it opens up frontiers of innovation, including new energy technologies. Premature anti-CO2 policies can actually boost CO2 emissions, as happened in Germany, where ill-advised wind and solar mandates (and also nuclear decommissionings) so decimated the energy grid that the nation had to quickly build new coal plants. New nuclear technologies are technologically superior to solar and wind but remain irrationally unpopular politically. Emitting more CO2 today may thus accelerate the date when economical, non-CO2 emitting technologies generate most of our power.

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