As the United Nations declared that the world population had reached 7 billion, energy thinkers gathered in Houston last week were sure that even larger populations could be sustained if three cardinal areas were to be addressed: food, water and energy. Although no resolutions were passed at the forum, there was a consensus that there is more of an energy race than a pressing energy crisis.
The forum, organized by the World Energy Council and its American and Canadian chapters, heard about an energy world that has been transformed from the time of the gasoline lines of the 1970s to one that is squeezing abundant supplies of petroleum products from the earth, and an electric sector that is looking at an intoxicating array of new possibilities.
Item: In the past three years, gas from previously unavailable tight shale formations, especially the Marcellus field, stretching from New York through Pennsylvania and down into West Virginia, has changed the outlook for U.S. energy supply profoundly. Plentiful gas has ended many schemes to import liquefied natural gas and caused utilities to turn from an expected surge in nuclear power to a passion for gas.
The race to avoid crisis rests on the belief that world population and its peaceful expansion rests on three interrelated pillars: water, food and energy. Normally planners look at these separately, but Cristoph Frei and Karl Rose of the WEC and Barry Worthington of the United States Energy Association share a common view that all three of these cardinal needs have to be taken together, and their impact on each other considered.
Rose is preparing a study on the water needs of the energy sector going forward. He says these are enormous with an impact not always included in projections of water demand. Oil and gas in tight formations, oil sands and electric utility cooling towers are part of the future and strain the water equation as do the obvious needs for water for agriculture, the largest user and, of course, potable water. Energy can solve or exacerbate the water problem, according to the energy savants.
Item: Alstom, the Paris-based global engineering company is planning to build the mother of all wind turbines: a 6.5-megawatt offshore behemoth -- the equivalent of an A380 Airbus, spinning atop a huge pole. Today's large wind turbines are in the 1.5-megawatt range. A new nuclear power plant comes in at 1,600 megawatts.
Item: While nuclear is in retreat in Germany, Italy and Belgium, it is going ahead in Britain, central Europe, China and India. Jacques Besnainou of nuclear supplier Areva North America, insists that nuclear is still the cheapest form of electricity and the gateway to a whole new world of medicine. France reprocesses (or, as he says, recycles) its own nuclear spent fuel and that of other countries. Recycling is profitable for France as well as Areva. He wishes the United States had continued with recycling.
Driving the rush for more energy is not only the world's voracious current consumption (approaching 90 million barrels a day of oil alone), but also the rising prosperity in Latin America and Asia. China and India, in particular, are sucking up oil and gas and furiously building electric power stations. An aspiring population demands water, quality food and energy.
Item: Canada is exuberant about its oil sands and Alberta's ability to handle the environmental impact. Joe Oliver, Canada's minister of natural resources, estimates air pollution at 0.1 percent of the world's green house gas emissions. The resource is calculated to be equivalent to two-thirds of the reserves of conventional oil in Saudi Arabia.
New sources of oil and gas have lifted, in North America, at least, the gloom that has hung around energy production for decades, even those who are facing market share loss to natural gas, coal and nuclear, sense there will be demand aplenty for both, as the energy for survival race heats up.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.