Colloquium Blogging: Steve Koonin on the Energy Situation

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.)

6 thoughts on “Colloquium Blogging: Steve Koonin on the Energy Situation

  1. Chris LS

    Did anyone happen to mention nuclear power? It seems to me that this is an extremely important power source in the interm between now and the development of fusion. If people are really concerned about the catastrophic effects of global warming, then nuclear is probably the only viable option for the short term, IMO.

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    Koonin mentioned nuclear power as being consistently about 5% of global power generation. France was able to take a chunk out of their emissions with widespread nuclear power. I think the main issue is that it’s more expensive than fossil fuels. (Also, he didn’t mention this, but the supply of uranium is limited just as fossil fuels are, and will eventually be exhausted… but I agree with you that it’s a good way to transition away from coal in the short term.)

  3. Mason

    Goodstein in general seems to have a more pessimistic personality than does Koonin, so their different outlooks on this situation may not go far beyond that.
    Also, for those of you who don’t know Steve Koonin, he and Rick Moranis were separated at birth. :)
    I remember the gist of Koonin’s response to an editorial I wrote when I was one of the Tech Editors. (Well, he responded to all of us because I forgot to put my signature there, but that was amended the next week.)

  4. JSpur

    I recently read that per capita annual oil consumption in China is 1.6 barrels per day or less than one-tenth of that in Korea. Buy oil stocks now and sell ’em in 15 years.

  5. Justin

    For another contast, see Deffeyes (he too has a book out on the subject). His take is that peak oil happened around Thanksgiving last year. :-)
    I remember seeing the nuclear option (not the Senate version…) discussed somewhere, maybe a review of Goodstein’s book. As I recall, the claim was that using nuclear to generate all power now generated by fossil fuels would exhaust the planet’s uranium reserves in a century or a bit less.
    Another interesting renewable option is wind power. Just recently there was an article about bleeding edge techs there (can’t remember if it was Physics Today or one of the science blogs – bad memory, bad!). The concept is to harness the more consistent wind streams high above the ground. Two of the technologies would go a few thousand feet up, and one would even hover at 35,000 feet, with obvious air traffic control issues to worry about.
    Is solar still more expensive? I know it used to be, but I thought it was close to competitive now that oil is so much more expensive… Maybe I’m confusing the solar numbers with the Fischer-Trobsch coal gasification numbers.
    I hate to say it, but emphasis on adaptation to climate change rather than prevention is probably the most realistic option. *sigh*
    Obviously I too am fascinated by energy issues (have been since a physics colloquium at UCSC ~5 years ago). 😀 I’ll have to take a look and see if Koonin is on the Caltech physics colloquium schedule this spring.

  6. Mason

    Koonin is not slated to speak in the main Physics Research Conference this year. Isn’t he spending most of his time in the UK? I think he hasn’t been on campus too much.

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