How much time do we have? What is time anyway? Can we abandon coal and oil and burn natural gas as our primary energy source for the remainder of the century–indeed for the next 88 years and then perhaps a little more? Who knows? Is this a question worth thinking about? Of course it is. All serious questions are worth consideration.
However, since the question focuses on a long time line, one which exceeds the life expectancy of most of us, expect for our infant children, we should think about the implications in ways we don’t normally consider.
First, even though most of us will not be alive in 2100, should we care. Of course we should, we’ll be thinking about a world we need to leave behind for our children and our grandchildren, who we care about.
Second, can we reverse what we may have started at the beginning of the industrial revolution? This is a bit harder question–but many think the answer is yes. The world is warming and even if we stop burning all fossil fuels, the world is going to get warmer. However, what becomes obvious when we think about it is that we cannot stop on a dime. If we look at the history of the use of coal, oil and gas since the beginning of the industrial revolution coal took center stage first. Oil and gas began to be used in the mid 19th century, but oil did not become our principal fuel until the 1951. In short, things take time. In 2012, there are now in excess of 7 billion people in the world, or over twice as many as there were in 1951. But the road ahead is different than it was from 1951 until now. We will level off at well under 10 billion toward the end of the century as people are living longer and birth rates strongly declining while median ages of most developed societies advance. Supplying water and food to the population in many areas will be a problem, while increasingly people will live in cities and not in the countryside. Most people alive today do not think about how different life will be in this century, and many reading this commentary may not want to believe what they are reading.
In the last 10-15 years many have been coming to grips with the idea that we possibly should make major changes in our energy sources. We’ve made some efforts to employ clean renewable fuel sources. We use nuclear power to a degree. It’s not totally clear and we don’t trust our use of it. We’ve made efforts to employ solar, geothermal and wind energies as well, but we’re still unable to employ these renewables in large scale economically.
Large scale new discoveries of natural gas in the Arctic are available as well as new reserves of oil, which although difficult to extract, are still economical to harvest. These added reserves of oil and gas are likely to make it easier to extend the use of these fossil fuels for large scale use through the end of the century. In addition, many coal power plants still in operation can likely be transformed to use liquified natural gas as a primary fuel. Further, automobiles and trucks can run on natural gas as well. We need to change the infrastructure from gasoline to liquified natural gas, which is not easy but manageable. Gasoline-battery operated hybrid cars and electric vehicles will lessen consumption of both gasoline and natural gas for both trucks and automobiles. This infrastructure can likely be created for most developed countries before 2020-2025. From that point through to the end of the century costs will climb as supplies dwindle or become harder to extract. Efficiencies in the use of gasoline and natural gas requiring engines for transportation or manufacture of goods may improve or may be slowly transferred over to the use of renewable energies which themselves may become more efficient and economic in their use.
What can be said is that if we rely primarily on natural gas and we continue to improve our engines for both travel, manufacturing, and for building new cities and extending others, we will very likely be able to use existing and projected natural gas supplies for those purposes through to the end of the century and beyond. But, it would be foolish to put off thinking about what to do next as we run out of natural gas–thinking about the problem in 2095 will be too late if we near an end in its supply in 2100. Many say supplies will last much longer, perhaps as long as 200 years. They may be right. I don’t know. I have to check the calculations and think about them and the assumptions made.
The major problem in thinking about using a finite supply of something and making plans out over a century’s duration is that we can’t really do that very well. We are linear thinkers. We tend to see things as they are and guess what the future may look like–at best we can see where we are going about 15-20 years out. We won’t be able to anticipate major new discoveries that may happen in intervening years. And, these new discoveries could change everything. If we could project ourselves 40-60-100 years into the world of tomorrow and just take a peak at how things are going, the world we would see would likely be unimaginable. Most likely it won’t look anything like what we thought it might look like. We can’t go there, either in our dreams or in our best wakeful guess work.
We’re going to have to work things out more slowly. Maybe we can start with natural gas, but we can give up on all the other energy options we know about as well as some of the ideas we’ve yet to hear about.