The EIA Energy Outlook seriously bums me out

The US Energy Information Administration, a great source for all kinds of domestic energy use data, just released a preview of their Annual Energy Outlook 2013, as written up by Biomass Magazine:

Of specific interest to those of us in the bioenergy sector are the down-scaled projections for biofuel use over the next 30 years.  They apparently revised their biofuel market share predictions down substantially from last year (though the detailed numbers aren’t posted yet), attributed to a combination of a) modest market penetration of flex-fuel vehicles, b) reduced gasoline consumption projections (both of which combine to limit domestic ethanol demand), and c) the inability of the industry to meet EISA/RFS targets for cellulosic ethanol production (a supply challenge previously discussed here and here).

Of more general interest is the huge gulf that persists between what the science suggests is necessary to stabilize the climate system, and the energy-use trajectory that the US government predicts for the next three decades, with wildly depressing implications.  Now I’m certainly not an expert on these numbers, but I think that the discrepancy becomes very apparent with just a quick glance at the three illustrative figures collected below.

Screen Shot 2013-01-01 at 5.09.13 PM

This first one is from Allen et al. 2009 in Nature.  They lay out different emissions reduction profiles (orange lines) capable of limiting total cumulative anthropogenic GHG emissions to 1 trillion tonnes of carbon equivalent, which they argue is likely sufficient to limit global temperature rise to approximately 2 °C (1.3-3.9 °C), the nominal IPCC negotiation target.  It’s certainly not the most current analysis (the global circulation models on which this type of modeling is predicated have evolved since then), but it nonetheless very clearly conveys the point that climate stabilization requires aggressive emissions mitigation over the short term, i.e. the next few decades: all successful scenarios show emissions on a sharp downward trajectory by 2040.

Screen Shot 2013-01-01 at 5.18.27 PM

Next we have the classic climate mitigation wedge figure from Pacala & Socolow 2004 in Science.  In order to make solving the anthropogenic GHG emissions problem seem more tractable, these guys laid out 15 existing technology strategies with the potential to scale up to 1 Gton worth of carbon emissions mitigation per year by 2054.  Of the 15 total potential wedges listed, 13 are energy sector related:  5 related to efficiency improvement, 3 representing industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS), and another 5 describing the displacement of fossil fuel use by renewables.  The authors show that 12 wedges are required to arrest the current exponential growth in annual GHG emissions;  something like twice that would be required to get on one of the stabilization trajectories described in the Allen et al. paper.  So the take away is that just halting the annual increase in emissions will probably require an aggressive combination of conservation/efficiency improvement and increased renewable energy penetration, and that getting on an actual sustainable path of sharp emissions reductions will require even more drastic measures.

Screen Shot 2013-01-01 at 4.01.01 PM

Finally, we have the latest from the EIA.  Be aware that this figure depicts trends in energy use, not emissions, and that technologies like CCS would attempt to decouple the two.  Still, there’s no sign whatsoever of either a sharp reduction in energy use or a massive replacement of fossil fuels with renewables as called for in Pacala & Socolow.  If you parse through the associated tables, you’ll find that they predict by 2040 an increase of 6 quads in nuclear and renewable energy use, but also an increase in coal and petroleum use of 3 quads and natural gas of 10 quads!!  Echoes of one of Paul’s recent posts.

So, in summary, the agency tasked with predicting trends in the US energy sector foresees no net progress on either reducing energy consumption or replacing fossil fuels with renewables by the time I and most of my colleagues pursuing PhDs are 55-60 years old.  Even though an aggressive combination of the two is required even to stabilize annual emissions and halt the current exponential increase.  And even though a much much greater effort is required to actually stabilize total emissions to something low enough to limit warming to 2 °C.  A target which some scientists think is still a “prescription for disaster“.  And this all for the US, the richest and one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, while China and the global south continue to experience a huge coal boom

And that’s why EIA reports bum me out.

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6 Responses to The EIA Energy Outlook seriously bums me out

  1. Paul says:

    That is interesting.. But I think that is one of those numbers that the wind industry can manipulate… because capacity isn’t the same as what is really generated.. and “new” probably doesn’t include retrofits of coal plants with natural gas?

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