Once more the world is warned that the energy problem is global and can only be solved globally. This time the admonition comes from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) -- an East- West think tank near Vienna where the United States and the Soviet Union can still join with a number of other nations in serious study of global problems.
In a cautiously optimistic report the IIASA sees humanity entering a "critical and ultimately necessary" transition from a global energy system based on depletable fossil fuels to one based on nondepletable, sustainable resources. The transition can be made, it says. The necessary resources exist. But it will be made only if humanity begins now to work together to make that happen.
Chiding most previous energy studies as being nationally or regionally self-centered, the report emphasizes that the energy problem is global in nature and can only be solved globally. "No nation is untouched, nor can any act in isolation," the report summary says. This puts a premium on global cooperation, and on avoiding major war, the devastation of which could foreclose the world's energy future.
If took seven years for the IIASA study team, directed by Prof. Wolf Haefele of West Germany to reach this central conclusion which, if stated out of context , has the ring of a familiar platitude. But to the more than 140 scientists from 20 countries who carried out the analysis, that conclusion is diamond hard reality.
It was no surprise to these experts that their detailed study confirmed what had seemed intuitively obvious -- that the present energy economy must be transformed. What did surprise them, the report summary says, was to find that the transition to a sustainable energy supply will likely be more demanding and take much longer than many previous studies have anticipated.
Currently available energy and other raw material resources must be carefully invested to build the equipment for the nuclear, solar, and synfuel energy supply system that could ultimately sustain humanity for many centuries. there is little margin for humanity to waste these resources fighting with itself.
As with other energy studies, the experts developed "scenarios" for the future and worked with computer-based mathematical models of how energy supply develops, models which were tested against the actual development of the past century. The future, in this case, is the next 50 years -- the period 1980 to 2030. The report emphasizes that these scenarios are not forecasts of what the future will actually be like. They are possible courses of development that take account of inherent constraints in energy supply development. But, since many other factors, especially political and social factors, are neglected, these projections are a guide to thinking only.
One of the major constraints that emerged is that each new type of energy supply has its own time scale for development, usually taking many decades to become a major factor. this is due partly to the massive investments, first of research and then of actual capital and labor, needed to bring an energy supply system into being.
Because of this, the study does not expect any one energy source to dominate the next 50 years. The energy supply system will be a mix of many sources in 2030. Even oil will be continue to be prominent, although it will come, to a large extent, from costly "unconventional" sources such as tar sands or shale.
Solar energy or nuclear energy using breeder reactors, both of which can be major contributors to a sustainable energy supply, will likely be only at the point of take off. They will not be in a position to meet global energy needs to a major extent within the next 50 years even if given priority. The needed capital investment is to too large to allow that.
Thus, the report says, the analysts concluded that humanity is faced, not with one energy transition as has often been assumed, but with two transitions. Over the next 50 years, and because of the unavoidably long timetable to bring in new energy supply systems, the challenge is to get into position to make the transition to a sustainable energy base. Then the challenge will be to actually bring about that transformation.
The study does not outline how the nations should proceed or what their exact priorities should be. It only offers suggestions. One of these is to recognize that the need for liquid fuels is the key energy problem. It cannot be met directly by coal, nuclear, or solar power, which primarily produce heat that is turned into electricity. But liquid fuels can be synthesized from coal. Elecriticity can be used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can either be a fuel itself or can be used to make synfuels much more efficiently.
Eventually, the report says, it may be possible to make fuel by combining hydrogen with carbon from carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels or that is already in the atmosphere. this would overcome one of the major problems associated with the use of coal -- release of carbon dioxide that could bring a climate change by warming the Earth.
The report cites this possibility to illustrate its underlying theme that, through adaptation and ingenuity, humanity will find many ways to meet its energy with the resources it has available.