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Major global increase in energy use, emissions predicted at MITEI colloquium

Howard Gruenspecht
Howard Gruenspecht
Photo: Justin Knight

If existing laws and policies remain unchanged, the world will see a 53 percent increase in energy consumption by 2035 — half of which will come from India and China alone, according to the acting administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), speaking before a packed audience in Bartos Theater at MIT on Oct. 5.

Speaking at a colloquium sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative, Howard Gruenspecht outlined key findings from the EIA’s report, "International Energy Outlook 2011." According to the report, released in September, fossil fuels will continue to supply 80 percent of the world’s energy in 2035, and worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will rise 43 percent between 2008 and 2035.

“It’s a sobering projection, one that leaves plenty of room for technological solutions, plenty of room for policy action,” Gruenspecht said.

The EIA itself makes no policy predictions, however. “We’re under strictures not to make assumptions about policy changes,” Gruenspecht said. “We base our reference case projections on existing laws and policies. That’s different from other organizations that forecast.”

Of course, he said, “the real surprise would be if policy shifts, technology breakthroughs, et cetera, did not occur over the next 20 years. This projection provides a starting-off point for looking at these issues.”

This year’s predictions are especially tenuous due to the global economic crisis, Gruenspecht said: “Long-range energy projections are always highly uncertain, but many developments over the past years make this outlook even more uncertain than usual.” In addition to the economic slowdown, Gruenspecht cited recent social and political unrest in North Africa and the unanticipated repercussions of Japan’s recent nuclear disaster.

“The economy is a very key driver of energy,” he said.

Energy demand is expected to soar in India, China and other countries outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), precisely because population and income levels are growing fastest in those areas. (The membership of the OECD is dominated by developed economies, including the United States, Canada and much of Europe.)

And, although renewables are expected to be the fastest growing form of energy — rising in popularity at a rate of 2.8 percent per year — liquid fuels are projected to remain the largest energy source worldwide. “Most of that growth is liquids used in transportation sector,” Gruenspecht said. “It is a major hurdle to get liquids out of the transportation sector both in United States and abroad.”

The world will use up to 112.2 million barrels of liquid fuel a day by 2035, including petroleum as well as a small but growing percentage of unconventional liquids such as biofuel and shale oil, according to the EIA report.

Electricity demand is also driving non-OECD energy use, with coal expected to continue to fuel the lion’s share of the world’s electricity in 2035, Gruenspecht said. Although natural gas and renewable energy sources are expected to grow significantly over time, the continued reliance on coal is troubling because coal is — and will continue to be — the top energy source for carbon dioxide emissions, he said.

The EIA predicts worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will reach 43.2 billion metric tons in 2035, with non-OECD Asia accounting for almost 75 percent of the world increase in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

“The United States just is not changing very much,” Gruenspecht said, adding that that news is not as good as it sounds. “You are all aware of the climate change problems, and flat emissions from the United States is not going to get the world where it needs to go.”

Among fossil fuels, natural gas use is rising the fastest — driven in part by increasing supplies of unconventional sources, such as shale gas. The EIA predicts that consumption will grow at an average rate of 1.6 percent per year. “Gas is the fuel of choice in many sectors of the world,” Gruenspecht said. “It’s a question whether it really helps on the greenhouse issue.”

Nuclear energy has been promoted as a relatively clean alternative to fossil fuel, and the EIA had expected to see increased reliance on nuclear power to meet electricity demand in the years ahead. However, that was before Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March. That event, which fell outside the scope of the EIA report, is likely to change the landscape for nuclear energy significantly, according to Gruenspecht.

“Fossil fuels continue to dominate energy use. In some respects, that’s a pretty sobering outlook, but under current laws and policies that’s where we think we’re going,” he said.

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