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Future energy demand and supply
Future energy demand and supply

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  1. Human society's consumption of primary energy has increased rapidly over the last few hundred years, although global per capita consumption of commercial fuels was roughly constant for the last few decades of the 20th century.
  2. The pattern of discovery, and rapid depletion, of fossil fuel reserves during the 20th century, as predicted for the US by M. King Hubbert, has prompted many different organisations to attempt forecasts of future energy sources and demand. These forecasts generally take the form of scenarios that illustrate how energy usage develops according to different factors, such as policy decisions, technological advances, and predictions of reserves.
  3. The coal pit closures announced by the UK government in late 1992 were a classic example of how a high-value resource can be rendered worthless overnight by economic and political factors unrelated to geological availability. Such abrupt changes make forecasting difficult, especially in the energy industries.
  4. Future energy scenarios tend to conform to three main types: historical growth, which extrapolate past trends; technological fix, which predict advances in energy efficiency and conservation, and zero growth, which suggest that society will be persuaded or forced to accept the end of economic growth. Many scenarios incorporate elements of all these approaches.
  5. Most scenarios constructed around the start of the 21st century are based on some degree of reduction in fossil fuel use, aiming to reduce society's reliance on these finite, environmentally damaging resources by harnessing other energy sources, such as nuclear and renewables. In addition, these alternatives may alleviate the situation where a small number of countries hold the bulk of the world's remaining oil and gas reserves.
  6. The global dominance of fossil fuels for energy supply carries with it the release of the 'greenhouse' gas CO2 at such a rate that it accumulates in the atmosphere. This is thought to be raising global mean surface temperature; global warming has characterised the period since the Industrial Revolution. Even with the most ecologically sound transformation of the global energy economy, mean surface temperature is predicted to rise by 1 °C by the end of the 21st century, and possibly by even more, given 'business as usual' and a growing global population.
  7. Other emissions, particularly sulphur dioxide, have increased the acidity of rain in some areas, thereby having significant ecological outcomes.
  8. Effects of 'greenhouse' warming may have been partly hidden by particulate emissions from industry, thus reducing solar energy received by part of the Earth's surface. Reduction in such emissions will accelerate global warming.
  9. A UK government White Paper in 2003 outlined a vision of energy supply in 2020, with a central electricity grid supplied by wave, tidal and wind power backed up by fossil fuel and nuclear power stations. Local and microgeneration (e.g. by community biomass plants, photovoltaics, fuel cells, local wind installations) would be more prominent, along with energy conservation measures, especially in the domestic sector. There was no suggestion of voluntarily reducing consumption.
  10. Future development of energy sources may be focused on several goals: exploiting largely untapped fossil fuel resources (e.g. tar sands); developing technologies for cleaner fossil fuel use; developing the exploitation of renewable energy sources; and overcoming problems such as intermittency and energy storage.
  11. One proposed solution to energy storage is to evolve a system known as the hydrogen economy, where hydrogen is used as a medium to store and transport the energy generated by intermittent sources. Fuel cell technology would have to be advanced, but one benefit would be that hydrogen is a relatively 'clean' fuel.
  12. Another potential alternative energy source is nuclear fusion, which derives energy from combining atoms of hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) to form helium. Because this process requires a very high temperature plasma, which is contained in a strong magnetic field, it has not yet been developed on a commercial scale.
  13. Technological measures to reduce fossil fuel dependence and develop alternative energy sources can be supplemented by a range of technological and social strategies to conserve energy, including de-materialisation. However, energy conservation can be offset by the rebound effect, if savings are then spent consuming more energy.