For generations people have talked of the ‘Population Explosion’ but it never seemed possible to run out of space.
A quick comparison of population densities between major cities like Mumbai, with nearly 30,000 people per square kilometre, and the world average for dry land of only 46 per km2 shows that there is room for many more yet.
However, the physical needs of the billions that will live on Earth after just one more generation present a challenge of alarming proportions.
Energy to sustain economic growth
Energy is a fundamental requirement for human existence, especially in colder climates and urban environments where traditional resources are limited.
Periods of history have been identified by the adoption of various energy resources and electricity is the most durable to date. Electric power offers unrivalled convenience for the provision of lighting, ventilation, refrigeration & air-conditioning, and for running machinery and appliances of all kinds.
The demand for energy and especially electricity, is growing most rapidly in the developing world (in particular in China and India) and this trend will definitely accelerate over the next generation. Twin driving forces explain this rising energy demand: industrialisation and urbanisation.
The incentive of cheaper and more flexible labour markets attracts more and more manufacturing industries to set-up in developing economies, because lower production costs translate into competitive advantages in global markets for manufactured goods.
Energy to sustain population growth
Growing industries demand more labour and this liberates people who previously eked out a living from the land in rural areas to gain formal employment, and also stimulates inflation in the wage rate.
Growing employment opportunities and higher wages mean more purchasing power and therefore greater demand for home appliances and even luxury goods like TVs and computers. This socio-economic engine of growth not only produces stunning GDP growth impetus that has already shrugged off the world depression, but also creates a voracious appetite for electricity.
The rapid increase in energy demand by developing countries is inextricably linked to rising standards of living in the world’s poorest people.
The International Energy Agency estimates that nearly 32% of the population of the developing non-OECD countries had no access to electricity in 2005, and this represents around 1.6 billion people. Nearly 40% or 2.5 billion of the world’s people live without access to any modern fuel, but instead rely on foraged biomass like wood or dung for domestic energy.
It is obvious that the majority of the world’s population growth during the next generation, predicted by the United Nations to number 1.7 billion, will be born into the under-privileged communities of the third world and will enter the growth cycle described above, with considerable implications in terms of energy demand.
India, China and Pakistan, among other third world countries, have announced major expansion plans for their electricity generation and distribution systems. The predicted average increase in energy demand for non-OECD countries until 2030 is 3% per annum (p.a.), with electricity demand rising at nearly 4% in the same period.
This rate of growth implies that global capacity could almost double in only 25 years.
A world evolving
Driven by financial incentives designed to discourage the use of coal energy, renewable energy systems will displace a significant and growing proportion of fossil fuel consumption and may approach 40% of energy use by 2030 – thus enabling a decline in the predicted emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in developed countries.
Coal remains the lowest-cost energy source for electricity generation, partly because it is the most abundant. But unfortunately, it emits a higher amount of CO2 per unit of heat than the alternative fuels. At present around 80% of global electricity is generated using steam turbines fuelled by pulverised coal combustion (PCC) and the average conversion efficiency of this process has been measured in the range of 28% to 36%.
This low conversion efficiency, combined with further losses through transmission and distribution, means that little more than 20% of the coal energy released is available for consumption as electricity and – more CO2 emission results from wasted coal energy, than from useful output.
While CO2 is a natural component of Earth’s atmosphere and vital for the process of photosynthesis that sustains plant life, prior to the industrial age its concentration was less than 300 parts per million (ppm) by volume and is now rapidly approaching 400 ppm. Analysis of accumulated data clearly shows any fluctuations caused by specific events and the inexorable increase beginning at the start of the industrial revolution has driven it up by 38%, to the highest concentration in the past 2 million years.
The rate of CO2 emission from fossil fuel combustion grew by only 1% annually during the 1990s, increased to over 3% after 2000, and is expected to average about 1% p.a. through to 2030.
How new technology can help
With the knowledge that our reliance on fossil fuels cannot last forever, and we must strive to adopt cleaner, greener technologies, what does the future hold?
Renewable energy is unquestionably the future solution to providing energy that can sustain the inevitable population growth. The problem right now is the cost penalty in adopting and implementing clean energy systems.
Financial interventions like subsidies and carbon taxes will potentially influence the direction and pace of change, but the improved efficiency of known technologies is likely to deliver significant improvements in a shorter timeframe.
Massive installed capacity exists for generating electricity from coal, and many countries will continue to depend on coal energy as their primary energy source for electric power generation; so research into higher efficiency is an urgent priority.
While research into existing technologies is one route to future sustainability, there’s a prominent path to energy security that we cannot ignore – hydrogen. The much vaunted ‘Hydrogen Economy’ is still in relative infancy, though advances in recent years could soon provide the platform for large-scale adoption. The proposal of a Hydrogen Economy is based on adopting hydrogen gas as a universal energy carrier, to replace all the energy systems in use today.
The proposal assumed that techniques to facilitate the storage and transport of hydrogen would be developed so that hydrogen-based energy would be abundant, inexpensive, convenient, safe, efficient and of course, economically viable.
The future growth of the Hydrogen Economy was proposed to be driven by the availability of low-cost, efficient hydrogen generators that would allow vehicle refuelling stations, industries, business and even households to produce hydrogen for their own consumption, using electrical energy delivered via the distribution grid and water as the feedstock.
It is envisioned that hydrogen highways, waterways and skyways will revolutionise transport systems as trucks, minivans, sport utility vehicles, motorcycles, buses, trains, watercraft and aircraft will all be adapted to operate using clean hydrogen energy.
Hydrogen promises far greater efficiency because it carries over three times the amount of energy per kilogram than petrol or diesel. However, the transition from petroleum-based fuels to hydrogen in the transportation sector is complicated by the need for refuelling stations to be in place before a market can be developed.
It has been calculated that at least 12,000 hydrogen fuel stations will be required in the US alone, for hydrogen to be conveniently available to 70% of the population and serve a potential 10 to 20 million cars. This compares to 180,000 existing fuel stations.
As things stand, while significant progress has been reported in the fields of fuel cell manufacture and the design and testing of prototype vehicles, several major obstacles remain in the path of progress.
Industrial gas involvement
Attempting to overcome these barriers is the industrial gas industry, which has, over the past century, contributed many innovations that raised the efficiency, productivity, safety and output quality of countless industrial processes.
Considerable research effort has been invested in the development of new techniques to produce and distribute hydrogen in anticipation of the so-called Hydrogen Economy.
The most recent major breakthrough that gasworld was made aware of, involves US gases major Air Products. The company is leveraging its vast hydrogen experience and resources to drive forward hydrogen’s use as an energy carrier for fuel cell technology.
Drawing on its expertise, Air Products sees opportunities for hydrogen technology in the fast-growing material handling (forklift) market. Furthermore, lessons learned from the adoption of hydrogen energy in this arena could prove to be an invaluable step towards a future hydrogen economy for all.
There are many advantages to using hydrogen powered forklifts and other material handling equipment, mainly the ability to draw parallels between hydrogen in forklifts and in conventional vehicles. If you can demonstrate the viability of hydrogen in forklifts, then these same dynamics can be duplicated on a much larger scale.
Any paradigm-breaking transformation has its challenges, but if the proposition works, there’s realistic scope of going green on a big scale.