Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future

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  • 3.5 Summary points

    The world is not about to run out of energy: coal reserves alone would be adequate to support hundreds of years of consumption at current rates, while the theoretical potential of renewable resources is virtually limitless. The constraints we face are fundamentally environmental and economic: can we come up with new energy supplies that do not incur unacceptable climate or other risks, at a price, in the quantity, and in the timeframe needed to meet growing global demand?

      Without some unforeseeable, fundamental energy-technology breakthrough, no single energy supply option provides a ‘silver bullet’ solution for the world’s energy woes. The path to sustainability will surely involve—along with a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency and demand-side options—a diverse portfolio of supply resources. This does not mean that all supply options should be pursued with equal vigor. The world’s resources are finite and choices will need to be made. Scientists can make a unique contribution in the selection of R&D priorities, which should be based on economics, scalability, technological promise, and other factors.
      Future choices regarding final energy carriers—such as electricity or hydrogen—will have important implications for the mix of primary energy sources used to meet global energy needs. At present, global and regional supply-security and price concerns are most relevant for conventional oil and, to a lesser extent, natural gas. Given the finite nature of conventional oil reserves in particular, and the uneven geographical distribution of these resources, oil- and gas-related energy-security concerns will continue to be a high priority for many governments over the next several decades. Assuring access to natural gas will be a significant issue given the importance of natural gas as a ‘bridge’ fuel in the transition to a less carbon-intensive portfolio of energy resources. Meanwhile, to address oil security concerns it will be vital to develop alternatives to conventional oil, especially in the transport sector, that are compatible with other sustainability objectives. At the same time, it is worth pointing out that governments have been known to guess wrong. Poorly designed incentives and mandates can produce significant unintended consequences and undesirable market distortions.
      Given ample global supplies and relatively low cost, coal is likely to be an important part of the energy picture for some time to come. Therefore great urgency must be given to developing and commercializing technologies—such as carbon capture and sequestration—that would allow for the continued use of coal in a manner that does not pose unacceptable environmental risks.
      Nuclear technology could make an important contribution to future low-carbon energy supplies, but significant new investments in nuclear power are unlikely without substantial government support; more effective international collaboration on safety, waste, and proliferation concerns; changes in public perception; and the imposition of greenhouse gas constraints that would make low- or non-carbon technologies more cost-competitive with conventional fossil technologies. A transparent and scientifically driven re-examination of the issues surrounding nuclear power and their potential solutions is needed.
      Earth’s untapped renewable energy potential is enormous and widely distributed in industrialized and developing countries alike. In many settings, exploiting this potential offers unique opportunities to advance both environmental and economic development objectives. Dramatic cost declines, strong growth in many renewable energy industries, and new policy commitments are promising. For example, the European Union has recently adopted the target of meeting 20 percent of overall energy needs by 2020 using renewable resources. Nevertheless, significant technological and market hurdles remain and must be overcome for renewable energy to play a significantly larger role in the world’s energy mix.


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