16 April 2010

Scotty, We Need More Power!

Energy production and standard of living are directly connected. My neighbor, Dr. L. Douglas Smoot has a presentation (as yet unpublished) that he's made to various audiences in the last year. His thesis is that in order to raise the standard of living for impoverished nations we have to raise the corresponding energy production. That's because energy is required for the production of food, for manufacture of goods, for the treatment of illness, for the management of indoor temperature and for the transportation of everything.

The graph above, extracted from this excellent Department of Energy study shows the correlation between the Human Development Index (a measure of standard of living) and per-capita energy use. It's arguable that the energy consumption of U.S. citizens could be reduced while still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. Nevertheless, per-capita energy production of developing countries would have to be increased to somewhere around U.K. levels if poverty and disease are to be reduced to levels seen in industrialized countries

The DOE study indicates the threshold is about 4,000 kWh per person which is somewhere between Spain and South Korea on the the graph. Of course, electricity is only a fraction of total energy use. The same DOE study indicates a ratio of total energy to electricity use of 7.5 should be used for standard-of-living calculations. Therefore we need approximately 30,000 kWh or 108 gigajoules per-person.

There is a lot to be gained through improving energy efficiency. Insulation, hybrid cars, smaller vehicles, public transit, high-density housing and so forth are all important pieces of the solution. However, the initial figures I have used here are less than half of U.S. energy consumption. So, efficiency gains are more likely to reign in high-consumption populations like U.S., Canada and Japan then they are to reduce the needs of developing countries. Besides, it costs energy to manufacture all of these efficiency improvements.

The current world population is estimated at 6.8 Billion. So, in order to eliminate poverty, increase freedom and improve the human condition we need approximately 734 exajoules (734 * 10^18 J) of net energy production per year in addition to massive improvements in energy efficiency. In 2008, worldwide net energy production was 474 exajoules. Given that population continues to grow, we should be seeking to more than double worldwide energy production while still seeking to improve energy efficiency.

If energy production is increased at the cost of environmental damage, we'll miss the goal. Clean air, clear water and wild spaces are just as important to quality of life as good health, nutritious food and a comfortable home. In future posts I'll look into where that energy might come from.

Other posts in this series:
Increasing Energy Production
Energy: The Future is Nuclear

1 comment :

james said...

sounds like the amount of energy to time travel using a flux-capacitor.

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