Five Truths About Our Energy Future

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Jose Fuste Raga / Corbis

An oil refinery in Bahrain

Here's the thing that forecasts about energy use and production tend to have in common: they're probably wrong. From the predictions in the 1950s that nuclear energy would one day be too cheap to meter, to the belief in the 1970s that the world would run on solar power by the end of the 20th century, would-be energy prophecies have seemed to come from very cloudy crystal balls. Today the biggest trend affecting global energy markets is the explosive growth of shale natural gas — something that virtually no one thought was even viable 20 years ago. Technological advances, new discoveries, unexpected economic crises, environmental concerns — all of these factors can skew our expectations about how we'll be powering our homes, cars and industries tomorrow. So when you listen to the gloomy forecasts from peak-oil theorists or hear the sunnily optimistic scenarios of energy executives, keep this in mind: the future is really, really hard to predict.

That's one reason Fatih Birol — the Turkish-born chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA) — has one of the toughest jobs in the world. Birol helps put together the IEA's annual World Energy Outlook, a much anticipated report that gathers trends in global energy use and tries to project them into the future. And a lot of those trends are very worrying. The IEA has said that current global-energy-consumption patterns put the earth on a trajectory to warm by nearly 11°F (6°C) above preindustrial levels by 2100 if we do nothing to change them — climate change that would in effect mean an entirely different planet. "That would be a catastrophe for all of us," Birol said last week at a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

The IEA's warning on climate change has gotten more attention than most — in part because it came just before the U.N. launched its annual climate summit, still underway in the South African city of Durban. But the report also contained a number of other surprising facts about the future of energy — and I sat down with Birol after his talk to go over them.

1. Shifts in Oil Security
For decades now, the U.S. has been the world's No. 1 importer of oil, buying 11 million barrels a day in 2010. That imbalance has cost Americans money — over $300 billion last year — and it has an impact on our foreign policy, putting the U.S. in the position of acting as the world's oil cop. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't only been about oil, but that's not to say that keeping the crude flowing from the Middle East wasn't an important side effect.

The good news is that thanks both to improved energy efficiency and new sources of crude in the U.S., Americans are beginning to import less and less oil. The IEA expects American oil imports to be half their current level by 2035 while European oil imports will continue to rise. By 2015, Birol projects that the European Union will be importing more oil than the U.S., and by 2035 China may be importing twice as much as the U.S. "This has implications for oil security," says Birol. "Will others step forward?"

2. The Future Is Gas — Unless Industry Screws Up
We often assume that oil-and-gas supplies are essentially fixed, that technological development is something that happens only in clean tech. But that's not the case. Oil-and-gas exploration is high tech, and new methods can allow industry to tap new supplies. That's the case with hydraulic-fracturing and shale gas, which has significantly expanded natural-gas supplies in the U.S., with knock-on effects around the world. As a result, generally cleaner natural gas is poised to compete with coal on price. "We're entering a golden age of gas," says Birol.

But that golden age could be tarnished by concerns over pollution from hydrofracking. Environmentalists worry that fracking and drilling may be spoiling nearby groundwater, while residents in areas with gas are increasingly unhappy with the industrialization and disruption that comes with drilling. Most of these environmental problems are manageable with the right kind of regulation — especially compared with burning coal — but without better rules, there's a real chance that the dash for gas could go awry. "The U.S. has given a major present to international energy with shale gas," says Birol. "But if you want a golden age of gas, you need a golden age of regulations." The gas industry would be wise to listen.

3. We're Getting Dirtier
If there's one relatively uncontroversial truth in energy, it's that we need to improve efficiency. Wasted energy is wasted money — all the more so at a time when oil prices are high and unlikely to drop. In the U.S., energy efficiency has been one of President Obama's successes in environmental policy, pushing for greener buildings and mandating better gas mileage.

Too bad, then, that the world as a whole is getting less and less energy efficient. IEA numbers have shown that globally over the past couple of years, we're emitting more carbon per unit of economic output. That's mean we're traveling in the exact opposite direction from where we need to be going, recarbonizing instead of decarbonizing, thanks chiefly to increases in dirtier energy such as coal and inefficient manufacturing in rapidly growing countries like China and India. It's a sign of just how difficult the clean-energy transition will be.

4. Coal: The Once and Future Energy Source
Industry insists that the Obama Administration has launched a "war on coal." Environmental groups are trumpeting campaigns to push the U.S. beyond coal. Solar and wind and natural gas get all the good press. But the truth is that coal has generated most of our electricity in the past, it's generating much of our electricity right now — and barring technological or regulatory change, it will generate much of our electricity in the future. "We rarely talk about coal," says Birol. "But over the last 10 years, 50% of the growth in global energy consumption has come from coal."

That fact, more than any other, explains why we're currently on a track for a much hotter world. The developed world is already moving away from coal, but countries like China are using more and more, as you can see in the smoggy skies of Beijing. Coal is cheap and coal is plentiful — but if we can't turn away from it, our fate is pretty much sealed.

5. Energy Access: The Forgotten 2 Billion
For all the worry over peak oil or climate change, there are nearly 2 billion people on the planet who lack any access to modern energy. They are, quite literally, in the dark — and while we plot a cleaner, greener energy future, we can't forget about them. Lack of access to energy essentially dooms whole populations to grinding poverty. "I've been trying to push this agenda for 10 years," says Birol. "It needs to be part of the energy conversation."

To help bring attention to this needy and underserved part of the human family, the U.N. has designated 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, which should help energy access rise on the global development agenda. But if we're really going to figure out a way to switch on the lights in places like sub-Saharan Africa, we'll need the participation of big corporations. "We need major energy companies looking at this issue much more closely," says Birol. The future is hard to predict, but that's one thing we can be sure of.