Some of you know Steve Koonin from his days as Caltech’s provost. He’s now chief scientist at BP International, and gave the colloquium at Berkeley today under the title “A Physicist’s View of the World’s Energy Situation”. The talk was extremely interesting and seemed like a very realistic assessment. Some of the points I took away (in a bit of random order):
- Koonin estimates peak oil in about 30 years. Asked about the more alarmist estimates of 10-20 years, he basically says that BP has better data about the oil supply.
- On the other hand, there is 200 years worth of coal left in the ground.
- Coal is the worst fossil fuel for carbon emissions, but technologies exist to mitigate this.
- Oil in the US is mostly used for transportation, coal and natural gas for electric power.
- Energy use in transportation is very inefficient, but efficiency needs to be coupled to conservation: car engines improved efficiency by about 25% in the 90’s but most of this went into heavier and faster cars rather than better gas mileage.
- Koonin first downplayed the evidence for climate change, then stated that he is 90% confident that it is happening and went on to treat it as a serious issue.
- However, based on projected fossil fuel use he feels that large quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100 are unavoidable, and we should focus on adaptation rather than prevention.
- Renewable energy is very far from being a realistic replacement for fossil fuels.
- There are two large numbers relevant to global energy use: the per capita energy consumption in developed countries (the USA is an outlier, but other developed countries are within a factor of two) and the population of developing countries. Efforts by Europe, the US, and Japan to control emissions only offset the effects of growth in China, India, etc. by a few years.
- The word “fusion” did not appear in the talk. A number of questioners brought it up and Koonin stated that it was at least 50 years away from replacing fossil fuels. “First you have to get it to work.”
- In the extreme long run (200+ years, once fossil fuels are exhausted) Koonin predicts fusion and solar will be the dominant energy sources. Currently solar is much more expensive than almost all other sources of energy, but this is a materials problem and can potentially be solved.
The talk will eventually appear here as a webcast. I’ve been increasingly interested in energy issues lately and I found it to be a fascinating look at how the oil companies (or at least one of them) look at these things. Next week while I’m traveling I’ll read Out of Gas and see what Koonin’s fellow Caltech prof David Goodstein has to say about this. (Goodstein is clearly more pessimistic.)