Europe’s real energy problem

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Wind and solar power are helpful, but you can’t run cars and planes on them.

Peter Vesborg

Even if the price of oil has fallen in recent months, the big-picture trend is that over the past decade energy prices on global markets have risen strongly, with the cost of key resources such as oil and gas increasing by multiples. In spite of that, the production of fossil fuels in Europe has been in free-fall: EU output of oil, for example, has dropped by more than 52 percent in the last decade due simply to field depletion.

In the years 2011-2013 the EU spent €1 billion every day just on imported oil. And that doesn’t include the cost of imported coal and natural gas. From this perspective it is perhaps not surprising that many EU countries are still struggling to emerge from the global crisis that began in 2008 – and it becomes tempting to argue that “we cannot afford to invest in long-term energy technologies while the economy is suffering”. The reality, however, is that we cannot afford not to invest in future energy. Relying only on the energy technologies currently available, Europe will not be able to maintain its present level of material wealth and affluence.

In some ways, Europe is off to a good start. The EU is a trailblazer in the development and deployment of wind power, solar power and “intelligent” energy infrastructure. Europe is also on the cutting edge in the fields of biomass utilization, fuel cells and electric-vehicle integration. We can, and should, develop and deploy all these technologies – and even more quickly than we currently are. Yet even with a massive build-out of all existing technologies, Europe cannot fully deal with its energy problem. One central unsolved problem remains: the synthesis of fuel and chemicals. This is necessary because wind, photovoltaic cells, hydropower and nuclear all supply electricity – not fuels. While biomass can provide fuels, it is highly unlikely that the necessary agricultural land can be spared in a world in which we must soon grow food for 9 to 12 billion people. As long as the world’s infrastructure, with its 1 billion cars and 20,000 passenger jets, run on liquid hydrocarbons, the most pressing concern is fuel – not electricity.

Today there are no viable off-the-shelf technologies for converting solar electricity to fuels like synthetic gasoline or jet fuel. While we do have the ability to make synthetic gasoline from electricity, we do not have a technology that is scalable and competitive enough to be relevant for global energy supply. Even if we did, the sheer size of the problem means that it would take decades of massive build-out and the investment required to deploy it on a global scale would probably be in the range of 1percent of annual GDP.

In short, Europe must massively invest in its future energy supply – both in R&D to find smarter ways to harvest and especially to convert energy – but also in building the required new infrastructure. Yet the level at which industry, national governments and super-national entities like the EU are investing in the energy problem is far, far below what is actually needed. As an example, the EU’s flagship programme for research, Horizon 2020, presently allocates €10 billion a year. This may seem like much, but it is divided between many fields of research: less than €1 billion a year goes for energy- related technology. In other words, in recent years the EU’s annual budget for researching solutions to its energy problem has been comparable to its daily energy import expenses! This could turn out to be a very serious case of wrong priorities. Things are not much better in the energy industry. While high-tech industries like pharmaceuticals or electronics typically allocate 10 to 15 percent of turnover to R&D to stay competitive, most energy companies spend below 1 percent. Typically, most of this modest expenditure is not even spent on long-term solutions, but rather on “kicking the can down the road” solutions such as better fracking techniques for shale/tight-oil production or improved ultra-deepwater drilling technology. The present headline-grabbing drop in global oil prices is due chiefly to spiking tight-oil production in the U.S. There is no global “glut” of energy in sight. The EU is in a particularly difficult situation since it relies on imports for more than 70 percent of all its fossil fuels and more than 90 percent of its oil. In Europe, therefore, we must develop and deploy tomorrow’s energy sources today. And we are not doing it right now, not by a long shot.

By Peter C.K. Vesborg

Peter C.K. Vesborg is associate professor of physics at Technical University of Denmark, where he specialises in photocatalysis and solar fuel synthesis. He is also founder of the start-up SunTube.

The planet’s population is growing steadily. Today we are seven billion people, and on the way to the eight. And we all have a desire for growth and better living standards. So far, this development has been possible thanks to cheap energy from the polluting fossil fuels, but one day we run out of both oil and coal. And the existing renewable energy sources do not suffice. The world is in energy crisis. A solution must be found.
In this documentary we follow a group of researchers from research initiative Catalysis for Sustainable Energy (CASE) at DTU (Technical University of Denmark) in Lyngby. The scientists work on how we harvest solar energy. In just one and a half hour the Earth is struck by enough solar radiation to cover a full year of global energy consumption. What’s missing, however is a way to store the energy so we still have energy when the sun is not shining.

The documentary was produced in 2012-2013 by Danish Broadcasting Corporation with support from the Nordea Foundation.

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