Energy Sustainability Requires Innovation

By Charles McConnell, University of Houston

There is an energized debate raging globally around the future of our planet – our energy ecosystem – and our societal way of life. Strong and polarizing views are being voiced. Some of that discussion is based upon forecasts, proposed business and market scenarios, science and technology expectations and fact. Other views are more emotional or not grounded in what is realistically possible. That said, there is a simple set of truths that must not be ignored going forward. These truths are the governing principles that make up the framework of true “energy sustainability”.

True energy sustainability is captured in the triangle below, and it is not static by any means. Change has occurred and will continue at a more rapid pace than ever. The forces of the marketplace are at work constantly and the elements of the triangle must stay in balance and harmony. Without the proper consideration and balance of the key elements of energy sustainability, the debate devolves into partisan positions and picking winners and losers. If this continues, we will all lose in the end.

There are realities today that are clearly challenging our society. Energy demands globally are projected to increase by well over 50 percent by 2050. However, the growth in demand will be accompanied by the societal desire to significantly decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, most critically carbon dioxide. And of course, we all want energy to remain affordable. This is the energy challenge we face – affordable, accessible and reliable, and environmentally responsible. Meeting this challenge globally will require transformative technologies and systems.

Most people are what I refer to as the “energy takers”, and don’t recognize this challenge to the “energy makers”. The U.S. has a population largely spoiled by the fact that we have always managed to overcome both energy AND environmental challenges – but not without purposeful effort. Many argue that government and policy must lead the way. Others say to trust the marketplace to drive industry and consumer behavior. Still others put their trust in technology and innovation, but it is not magic and requires investment. What is clear is that all of these forces will be in play at the same time, and without the balance of the key elements of energy sustainability, we may be working hard but not smart. People’s beliefs cannot be ignored or discounted. Education and the transformation of our societal production and consumption of energy will win the day.

Let’s start with the most fundamental need, which is access to energy. This can be defined by fuels, technology, delivery and the provision of energy. The global population continues to grow as does energy intensity – the amount of energy per person that is consumed. Sure, we are making huge strides in efficiencies and conservation. At the same time, our world becomes more electricity-intensive every day with the conveniences of cellphones, computers, the cloud – it goes on and on. And this says nothing of the vast numbers of the world’s seven billion people who live today in energy poverty, nor of the additional two to three billion more people who will inhabit the Earth in the next 50 years. We cannot put a cap on the improvement of life that comes with electricity.

Eliminating energy poverty may be the most important goal globally. There is no more critical factor to the quality of life. Can we achieve this by subtraction? Eliminating technologies and fuels and choosing to turn away from the incredible infrastructure that enables modern life? No.

People need not only access, but reliable access. Availability 24/7 must be the objective and indeed the mandate. Can you imagine having electricity for one or two hours a day – and never knowing when that one or two hours will occur?

There is no single way to achieve this reliability mandate. Our systems today are strongly grounded in baseload power supplies from coal and gas technologies that represent nearly 80 percent of the world’s electricity supply. This did not happen overnight and it will not be replaced overnight. Integrating renewables into supply systems and choosing the most effective way forward should be governed by affordability and competitiveness and we must be cautious of the impact of subsidies. There can be no denying that fossil fuels will remain a foundation of energy supply globally where use of these fuels will continue for the foreseeable future to be a compelling choice due to accessibility, availability and cost-effectiveness. Yet the goal of lower carbon dioxide emissions is not to be ignored.