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Solving the world's energy needs requires a global response

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 6, 2010 - In the next 25 years, the demand for energy across the planet is projected to rise about 1.5 times. The present course predicts that fossil fuels will still be supplying more than 80 percent of the energy used in 2030, while renewable and other energy sources will increase -- but not nearly enough to power the world.

Presidents of 26 universities from around the world gave their perspectives on energy and the environment at the McDonnell International Scholars Academy Symposium: "Global Energy Future" held at Washington University from Oct. 1-5.

University representatives came from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore in Asia; Hungary and the Netherlands, in Europe; Israel and Turkey in the Middle East; and Chile and Brazil in South America.

All are members of McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership, a consortium of universities and corporations, including many of St. Louis' largest companies.

The partnership's first symposium, held at Washington University in 2007, funded 14 collaborative research projects. The projects ranged from the academic, such as "The Changing Face of Hydropower in Canada, China and the United States" to the extremely practical, such as "Adoption of Appropriate Household and Commercial Stove Technologies to Address Energy and Environmental Problems in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, India."

Such research is urgently needed, as a preliminary Report on the Global Energy Future released at the symposium noted.

The report is a summary of the findings of a committee chaired by Chancellor Mark Wrighton of Washington University. It is intended to be an international counterpart to the report on America's energy future released in 2009 by the National Research Council, for which Wrighton was the vice-chair.

The new report breaks down energy needs and issues by region. In North America, 38 percent of this year's total energy use comes from petroleum, 26 percent from natural gas, 19 percent from coal, 7.7 percent from nuclear, and 8.4 percent from renewable sources.

In contrast, in South America, while petroleum provides 50 percent of the power, 28 percent comes from renewable sources, 19 percent from natural gas, and only 2.2 percent from coal. The individual countries in South America differ dramatically in their resources, however. Brazil is able to generate 85 percent of its electricity hydroelectrically, while Chile can only supply 37 percent from that source. Brazil has a large industry producing ethanol from sugar cane, and its cars are required to run on at least 25 percent ethanol.

In 20 years North America will still need about three times as much energy as South America. In certain regions of South America, carbon neutral energy resources could be exported.

Based upon current total energy consumption, the earth has enough coal for about 436 years, enough petroleum for 20 years, enough natural gas for 41 years, and enough uranium (for nuclear power) for about 268 years, according to the report. Nuclear power presents not only technological, but also political, problems.

The continued reliance on fossil fuels undercores the need for technologies to increase efficiency and to deal with carbon dioxide production. Novel ideas to link fossil fuels with renewables, such as bubbling flue gas from coal through an algae pond may play a role in future energy scenarios.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this international meeting was a doctoral student-run "Green your Campus" contest for the best idea for improving energy efficiency on campus. Click here to see video presentations, for ideas from on campus bicycle rental to recycling banners into tote bags.

Energy Source % total watts supplied in North America % total watts supplied in South America
Petroleum 38 50
Natural gas 26 19
Coal 19 2.2
Nuclear 7.7 .05
Renewable 8.4 20

Table comparing energy sources in North and South America in 2010

Calculated from graphic data in the preliminary Report on Global Energy Future

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching tech writing at WU's engineering school. 

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