Population as a Factor
The world is a big place, it is home to over 7 billion of us and in the next two decades, we’ll have another 2 billion join the party. To keep that party going, we’re going to need a ton of electricity and a bigger punch bowl. Right now, we need to produce about 170 million gigawatts of energy to power our world and that doesn’t even cover all of us.
There’s still around 1.2 billion people with little or no access to electricity and by 2040 we’re set to add the equivalent demand of an additional India and China. In total, our world is going to require around 47 million more gigawatts than what we consume today. To put that into perspective, 1000 gigawatts can power 10 billion 100-watt lightbulbs all at the same time. But it’s not just a growing population that’s causing this increased demand.
Although we continue to devise electricity efficiencies, more people are simply using more of it. People rising at poverty are able to buy things that require energy to produce and to power. And as we become a more digitized civilization, we require more electricity to power all of our gadgets. Also as our world goes increasingly connected, we need to transport a lot more stuff including ourselves. To meet all of these demands, we need to get energy from wherever we can get it.
Other Electricity Sources
Right now, fossil fuel the 80% of that energy with the remaining 20% coming from sources including nuclear power, biofuels, hydro, and other renewables like solar, wind, and geothermal energy. Even as the world strives to replace carbon-intensive fuel alternatives, unless we’re willing to return to the dark ages, we’re going to need all sources of energy for some time to come. For example, in 2016 global solar capacity increased by 50% but that added just 24 gigawatts of electricity to the mix. In 2017, wind power brought only 52.7 gigawatts of power online worldwide.
Even with new advancements from an electricity supplier, current projections estimate that renewable energy sources will account for only 40% of total global power generation, the rest will need to come from a mix of everything else. To put that into context, while we’re seeing in rapid growth in electric vehicles, for the 280 million electric cars that are projected to be on our roads in the next 20 years, the number of gas-powered cars is expected to double from 1 billion to 2 billion.
Electricity in the Digital Age
The largest part of the equation is generating enough electricity to not only light, heat, and cool all of our homes but to also power all of the electronic devices, vehicles, and gadgets that are becoming more and more prevalent and accessible. Solar, hydro, and wind will play an important role in producing that electricity but even the most ambitious expansion plans can’t come close to meeting the demand. To help, natural gas will play a larger role in power generation around the globe to provide electricity with much lower greenhouse gas emissions over coal-fired power plants. Especially in places like China who will need to add a power system equivalent to the current United States in the next 20 years.
Besides the energy required to manufacture all the things you and I and everyone else want to buy, actually producing all the plastics, rubber, clothes, and cosmetics leads to a 60% increase in demand for petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas. Moving all these goods around will require more trains, planes, ships, and trucks which require electricity of their own.
Energy in the Future
But while all of these may seem daunting, the good news is that we humans are really resourceful and are figuring out ways to produce and use all the types of energy we’ll need in the future more efficiently and with fewer impacts to our environment. From making renewables more attainable and reducing our use of carbon-intensive energy sources to making things that are more fuel-efficient and also changing behaviors to be more efficient ourselves. The key will be to balance the demand for energy between all the sources of energy available to us, from fossil fuels and renewables to whatever comes next. The energy that will not only help to keep the party going but ensure there’s enough punch in the bowl for everyone.