Quick: Is energy use good or bad?
If you’re like most people, you probably answered that it’s bad. In recent decades, government policy, environmental advocacy, and popular culture have focused on an agenda of energy reduction; we are told to consume less energy (drive less, turn off the lights, buy local food), limit our carbon footprint, and live less resource-intensive lives. And of course there can be good reasons for using less energy, including being less economically wasteful and curbing the environmental impacts of energy sources such as oil and coal.
But all of the focus on energy reduction has obscured the vital role that energy plays in meeting the needs of modern society. Energy enables us to live healthy, fulfilling lives. We use it to power our homes, grow our food, and manufacture our clothes and other basic necessities. Energy lets us communicate with our friends and family, drive to work, and travel abroad. Energy liberates us—especially women and children—from the drudgery of manual labor.
As I noted in a previous article, access to modern energy services highly correlates with human development. In both the developed and developing worlds, energy is critical for clean water, health care, reliable lighting, transport and telecommunications services, and more. Countries that can meet their energy needs become wealthier, more resilient, and better able to navigate social and environmental hazards.
So fundamental is energy use that despite the cultural ethos against waste in the West, we consume vast and increasing amounts of energy to power our phones, tablets, laptops, refrigerators, TVs, air conditioners, and other appliances—to say nothing of our hospitals, schools, restaurants, businesses, and public transit systems. The average American uses nearly 100 times more electricity than the average Haitian, while the average UK citizen uses more than 30 times the average Nigerian.
And we will likely consume even more energy as we continue to find new uses for it. According to the US Energy Information Administration, US electricity use is expected to grow 29 percent between 2012 and 2040; global demand is poised to triple by mid-century.
Although some may find this disconcerting, consider the amazing things that abundant energy will enable society to do—from the merely convenient, such as magnetic levitation trains cutting inter-city travel times by 75 percent, to the formerly unthinkable, such as laser-based treatments used to excise brain tumors or commercial spacecraft carrying civilians into the atmosphere.
Energy abundance could lead to increased global productivity, which would lead to meaningful quality-of-life improvements for people across the planet. Given that energy is a significant input in sectors like manufacturing and transportation, a large quantity of cheap energy would also make manufactured goods, as well as the transportation of those goods, much cheaper—with significant economic benefits for consumers.
A high-energy planet could also offer tremendous benefits for the environment. Imagine desalinating vast quantities of saline or brackish water to address droughts and regrow forests, using plasma gasification to break down trash to the molecular level and reduce landfill waste, growing food indoors and returning agricultural land to nature, or employing geo-engineering to remove carbon dioxide from the ocean and atmosphere. Imagine energy reducing the footprint of travel by enabling us to charge electric cars and buses as they drive over wireless pavement-embedded electromagnets, or by allowing high-definition virtual meetings that make business trips unnecessary.
Of course, fears about climate change often drive concern about energy use. Faced with the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions, many believe that energy efficiency and renewable energy sources can completely replace fossil fuels and meet global energy demand. Yet this approach is too often based on unrealistic, pastoral notions about people in the West living more like our rural ancestors, and assumptions of low levels of energy use for the developing world. The International Energy Agency, for instance, defines access to modern energy services as minimal household access to electricity (enough to, say, charge a cellphone, a couple of light bulbs, and a small computer).
While renewables have a role to play in our energy systems, they are unlikely on their own to meet the energy demands of those struggling to escape poverty in the developing world, let alone the full needs of modern society. Solar and wind systems provide energy only 12-30 percent of the hours in the day, and often very little at all for weeks. Recent studies of Australia and China suggest that in 2050, wind- and solar-dominated systems in many locations would require equal-sized conventional energy systems (such as gas, nuclear, coal, or hydropower) to supply adequate and reliable energy when sun and wind are not available.
I believe that what we need is not less energy, but abundant, clean, cheap energy across the planet.
Accomplishing this will require a global focus on energy innovation, including large, well-structured, and consistent public investments in research, development, demonstration, and deployment of new energy technologies. It will also necessitate greater deployment of existing carbon-free energy sources, such as nuclear power, that offer scalability, affordability, and density (an important factor in preserving wild places for nature while we decarbonize the energy system).
Energy abundance, and the incredible benefits it will bring to humanity and the environment, is in our grasp. But if we want to power the planet without cooking ourselves and using up all of the available land, we will need a dramatic shift in focus—to scaling technologies that can meet energy demand while also developing the even cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient energy sources of the future.