Space & Innovation

2040 Forecast Sees Only Slight Fall in Fossil Fuels

Despite the urgency of climate change, fossil fuels will still power the planet in 2040, a U.S. government forecast shows. Continue reading →

Despite the urgency to cut greenhouse gas emissions as climate change bears down on the globe, fossil fuel use is not likely to change much in the coming decades. Though renewable energy will grow quickly though 2040, gasoline and diesel will still move most of the world's vehicles, and coal will still be the largest single source of carbon emissions.

Those are the conclusions of a forecast released by the federal government on Wednesday for how the world will use energy and what its carbon dioxide emissions will be over the next 25 years.

Here are five things to know about the U.S. Energy Information Administration's World Energy Outlook 2016 and what it might mean for the climate:

Carbon Emissions Will Continue Ballooning

Global carbon emissions from energy consumption are expected to grow at an average rate of 1 percent per year between 2012 and 2040, growing a total 34 percent in that time as fossil fuels provide the world with more than three quarters of its energy.

"With existing policies and regulations, worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will go from about 32 billion metric tons in 2012 to something like 43 billion metric tons out to the year 2040," EIA administrator Adam Sieminski said.

Developed countries are expected see their carbon emissions increase about 9 percent through 2040, but in the developing world, those emissions will spike 51 percent.

That's because developing countries, particularly China and India, are likely to continue to rely mainly on fossil fuels for their energy. Those countries alone account for 59 percent of the growth in global carbon emissions.

Coal Will Still Be King of Carbon in 2040

Unless there are unexpected changes in global climate policy over the next 25 years, coal will still be the world's king of carbon emissions in 2040.

Coal is expected to account for 38 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2040, down from 43 percent in 2012. Annual growth of coal use by that time is expected to be about 0.6 percent. In 1990, coal was responsible for 39 percent of global carbon emissions. Natural gas, by comparison, will account for 26 percent of global carbon emissions in 2040, up from 20 percent in 2012.

China is the world's leader in coal consumption. With recent announcements that the country will reduce its use of coal by closing down power plants and shuttering mines, the EIA expects the country's coal use to peak by 2025 thanks to the its economic slowdown and pledge to cut emissions.

India is where coal will be used the most in the coming decades as its population, expected to surpass China's by 2022, explodes and energy demand spikes. Coal produced 72 percent of India's electricity in 2012, and that's expected to grow 2.6 percent annually through 2040.

Renewables Growth Soars

Wind, solar, hydropower and other renewables will be the globe's fastest-growing electricity source in 2040, growing 2.9 percent annually.

That growth means that by 2040, renewables, coal and natural gas will each generate about 30 percent of the world's electricity, with nuclear power and petroleum accounting for the rest.

In other words, electricity generation from renewables will equal that of coal in 25 years.

There's a catch, though: If you ignore hydropower and look mainly at wind, solar and geothermal, those will generate only about 14 percent of the world's electricity, up from 5 percent in 2012.

Solar power will see the most growth among all the renewables, growing by 8.3 percent each year. That doesn't add up to much power production overall, though. Solar will account for 15 percent of newly-built renewables through 2040, with hydro and wind each accounting for 33 percent.

Electric Vehicles: Still Not a Hit in 2040

Electric vehicles may seem poised to be the next big thing to take over the highways in the U.S. today, but globally through the next 25 years, they're likely to be tiny players. So small that only 1 percent of the global transportation sector is projected to run on electricity.

The transportation sector of the future is likely to slurp fossil fuels in 2040. About 80 percent of all global transportation will run on gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, and 11 percent will run on natural gas.

"Electricity remains a minor fuel for the world's transportation energy use, although its importance in passenger rail remains high: In 2040, electricity will account for 40 percent of total passenger rail energy consumption," the forecast says.

Paris, Technology Are Big Wild Cards

Climate policies, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, and advancements in technology are major wild cards when it comes to developing computer models meant to divine how the world will actually use energy in the coming decades and what that will mean for greenhouse gas emissions, Sieminski said.

"What actually happens in the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement will be really important," he said. "2040 is 25 years away. There's plenty of time for things to change."

Technology is also likely to change, and it could bring about a revolution in how the world uses energy. Advancements in battery technology could allow for the storage of more electricity more affordably, while declining costs in renewable electricity could bring major changes in transportation.

"All of that is extremely difficult to model," Sieminski said.

For example, previous forecasts missed the U.S. shale oil, gas and fracking boom that occurred over the last decade. No one guessed a decade ago that the U.S. would become the world's chief crude oil producer as advancements in hydraulic fracturing technology flooded the U.S. market with oil and gas. That boom helped to drive down prices and encourage electric power utilities to move toward natural gas and away from coal-fired power plants.

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Most people would agree that fossil fuels simply need to go. They’re the cause of pollution, wars and climate change. Scientists have been researching alternative energy solutions like wind and solar power, and hydrogen fuel for cars, for years. But while some automakers -- like Toyota and Honda -- are bringing hydrogen-fueled cars to market, wind and solar are still more expensive than oil and coal and may not be the best solution for all places or uses. For example, some medical devices that are implanted in a human body could benefit from super tiny batteries that last decades.

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So scientists continue the quest for abundant, cheap and efficient energy by investigating lesser-known sources, ones that may seem a little unusual, even ridiculous, unrealistic and, in some cases, morbid. “I think in order to solve the impending energy needs we might have to go a bit beyond,” said Bobby Sumpter, a senior research scientist of computational theoretical chemistry at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here are 11 of the more unusual sources that go above and beyond the norm. Who knows -- one day, you may use sugar to power your laptop, bacteria to run your car or dead bodies to heat a building.

Body Heat

Stretching the imagination when it comes to energy could get us closer to generating energy the way nature does: free and efficient. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson announced that excess heat from the subway tunnels and an electric substation would be funneled into British homes.

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Sugar

Traditionally, putting sugar into a gas tank is a prank that can ruin a car’s engine. But someday, it could be a great way to fuel a vehicle. “We should not dismiss ideas, we should let people pursue ideas of unusual things,” Diego del Castillo Negrete, a senior research scientist in the Fusion Energy Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said. Researchers and chemists at Virginia Tech are developing a way to convert sugar into hydrogen, which can be used in a fuel cell, providing a cheaper, cleaner, pollutant-free and odorless drive. The scientists combine plant sugars, water and 13 powerful enzymes in a reactor, converting the concoction into hydrogen and trace amounts of carbon dioxide.

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The hydrogen could be captured and pumped through a fuel cell to produce energy. Their process delivers three times more hydrogen than traditional methods, which translates into cost savings. Unfortunately, it might be another decade before consumers can actually dump sugar into their gas tanks. What seems more realistic in the short term is using the same technology to create long-lasting sugar-based batteries for laptops, cell phones and other electronics.

Solar Wind

One hundred billion times more power than humanity currently needs is available right now, out in space. It comes through solar wind, a stream of energized, charged particles flowing outward from the sun. Brooks Harrop, a physicist at Washington State University in Pullman and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State’s School of Earth and Environmental Science, think they can capture these particles with a satellite that orbits the sun the same distance Earth does.

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Their so-called Dyson-Harrop satellite would have a long copper wire charged by onboard batteries in order to produce a magnetic field perfect for snagging the electrons in the solar wind. The energy from the electrons would be beamed from the satellite via a infrared laser to Earth, since the infrared spectrum would not be affected by the planet’s atmosphere. This Dyson-Harrop satellite holds a few technical problems that researchers are currently trying to fix. It has no protection from space debris, and some of the power could be lost as it’s beamed through Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, finding a way to aim the laser beam across millions of miles of space is no small task. What seems more realistic is to use this satellite in order to power nearby space missions.

Feces and Urine

Most people think that feces and urine should be disposed of immediately. But feces contains methane, a colorless, odorless gas that could be used in the same way as natural gas. At least two solutions -- one in Cambridge, Mass., called Park Spark and one in San Francisco run by Norcal Waste -- is focused on converting dog poo into methane.

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In both solutions, dog walkers are provided biodegradable bags, which after they’re filled, are placed into a large container called a digester. Inside, microorganisms process the poo, giving off methane as a byproduct. The methane can be used to power lights In Pennsylvania, a dairy farm is looking to cow manure for energy. Six hundred cows that produce 18,000 gallons of manure daily are helping the farm save $60,000 a year. The waste is used to produce electricity, bedding, fertilizer and heating fuel. And Hewlett-Packard recently released a study explaining how a dairy farmer could make money by leasing land to Internet server companies, who could power computers with the methane. Human waste is just as good. In Bristol, Australia a VW Beetle car is powered by methane captured from a raw sewage treatment plant. Engineers from Wessex Water estimate the waste from 70 homes can generate enough gas to make the car run for 10,000 miles. And let’s not forget urine. At the Heriot-Watt University's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Edinburgh, scientists are looking for a way to make world's first urine-powered fuel cells. It could be a viable way for astronauts or military personnel, for instance, to produce power on the go. Urea is an accessible, non-toxic, organic chemical compound rich in nitrogen. So yes, humans are constantly carrying around a chemical compound that can produce electricity.

People: Dead or Alive

The next time you’re standing in a crowded subway in the middle of summer, don’t sweat it. The heat your body produces can warm an entire building, complete with offices, apartments and shops. At least that’s what's happening in Stockholm and Paris. Jernhuset, a state owned property administration company is putting together a plan to capture body heat from train commuters traveling through Stockholm’s Central Station. The heat will warm water running through pipes, which will then be pumped through the building’s ventilation system.

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Paris Habitat, owner of a low-income housing project in Paris, will also use body heat to warm 17 apartments in a building, which is directly above a metro station near Pompidou Center. On a more morbid and less sweaty note, a crematorium in the United Kingdom is using gasses released from the cremation process to heat a crematorium. The energy in cremated bodies is already being captured when it has to pass through filters to remove the mercury in the deceased’s fillings. Instead of letting the energy escape, pipes are used to pump it through the building.

Vibrations

Go out and party; it may help the environment. Club Watt in Rotterdam, Netherlands is using floor vibrations from people walking and dancing to power its light show. The vibrations are captured by “piezoelectric” materials that produce an electric change when put under stress. The U.S. Army is also looking at piezoelectric technology for energy. They put the material in soldier’s boots in order to charge radios and other portable devices. Although this is an interesting renewable energy with great potential, it’s not cheap. Club Watt spent $257,000 on this first generation 270-square-foot floor, more money than it can recoup. But the floor will be reprogrammed to improve output in the future. Your dance moves really can be electric.

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Sludge

California municipalities alone produce 700,000 metric tons of dried sludge annually, which has the potential to generate 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. The University of Nevada, Reno, is drying sludge to make it burnable for a gasification process, which turns it into electricity. A team of researchers at the university built the processing machine as a way of producing low cost and energy efficient technology. The machine turns gooey sludge into powder by using relatively low temperatures in a fluidized bed of sand and salts to produce the biomass fuel.

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The waste-to-energy technology is designed to be on site which means companies can save on trucking costs, disposal fees, and electricity. Although the research is still ongoing, estimates show that a full-scale system can potentially generate 25,000 kilowatt-hours per day to help power reclamation facilities.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish that glow in the dark contain the raw ingredients for a new kind of fuel cell. Their glow is produced by green fluorescent protein, referred to as GFP. A team at The Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, placed a drop of GFP onto aluminum electrodes and then exposed that to ultraviolet light. The protein released electrons, which travel a circuit to produce electricity. The same proteins have been used to make a biological fuel cell, which makes electricity without an external light source. Instead of an external light source, a mixture of chemicals such as magnesium and luciferase enzymes, which are found in fireflies, were used to produce electricity from the device. These fuel cells can be used on small, nano devices such as those that could be implanted in a person to diagnose or treat disease.

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Exploding Lakes

There are three known "exploding lakes," in the world, so called because they contain huge reservoirs of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in the depths by differences in water temperature and density. If temperatures should change and the lake turns, these gases would immediately fizz to the surface like a shaken bottle of soda, killing the millions of people and animals living nearby. In fact, such an event happened on Aug. 15, 1984, when Cameroon's Lake Nyos unleashed a huge cloud of concentrated carbon dioxide, instantly suffocating hundreds of people and animals. In Rwanda, Lake Kivu is such a place. But the government has built a power plant that sucks up the noxious gases from the lake to power three large generators, which produce 3.6 megawatts of electricity. The government hopes that in the next couple of years, the plant could be producing enough power for one-third of the country.

Bacteria

Billions of bacteria live out in the wild, and like any living organism, they have a survival strategy for when there is a limited food supply. E. coli bacteria store fuel in the form of fatty acids that resembles polyester. That same fatty acid is needed for the production of biodiesel fuel. So, researchers are looking to genetically modify E. coli microorganisms to overproduce those polyester-like acids. The scientists removed enzymes from the bacteria to boost fatty acid production, and then dehydrated the fatty acid to get rid of the oxygen, which made turned it into a type of diesel fuel. The same bacteria that can make us sick can also help save people money and the environment, by providing fuel for transportation.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes of carbon atoms that have a range of potential uses, from armor-like fabrics to elevators that could lift cargo between Earth and the moon. Recently, scientists from MIT have a found a way to use carbon nanotubes to collect 100 times more solar energy than a regular photovoltaic cell. The nanotubes could work as antenna to capture and funnel sunlight onto solar arrays. This means that instead of having an entire rooftop covered in solar panels, a person may need just a small space.