Energy in a Finite World

Options Magazine, Issue 1, 1981: 

The good news from IIASA’s large-scale  international study of the prospects of meeting global energy needs over the next 50 years is: “It could be done.”

The study’s "not-so-good" news is that to meet the growing worldwide demand, full use of all available energy sources—oil and gas, solar, renewables, and nuclear—will be necessary. Dirtier and more expensive fossil resources and vast quantities of synfuels will  have to be developed, as well as large-scale solar plants and nuclear breeder reactors. Small-scale solar and renewable resources will also play a growing role, but can only satisfy modest fraction of the total demand in the next century.

The IIASA analysis is the first truly global and long-term study of future energy, and the first in which scientists from East and West have collaborated. By using a consistent model of worldwide energy supply and demand, it avoids the common tendency of separate national studies to assume that sufficient imports will always be available, without comparing the demands of all countries against the likely supplies. By looking fifty years ahead it accounts for the time it takes for the energy system to undergo fundamental changes.

The principal goal of the study was to identify strategies for the transition from a world reliant on oil and gas to one supplied by sustainable sources of energy. But the original expectation that this could be accomplished within the 50-year horizon of the study turned out to be too optimistic. Instead, the IIASA group found that two transitions will have to take place. The first, from relatively cheap and clean conventional sources of oil and gas to more expensive and dirtier unconventional ones will continue through 2030. The second, to the essentially infinite supplies of solar, nuclear, and renewable energy will not be completed until late in the next century.

The analysis, however, is not entirely convinced that the promising paths will  actually be followed. The authors note: “At the very least, it will require that national  energy policies, corporate energy policies, and personal energy behavior be conceived  with as clear an understanding of their relationship to the global energy problem as possible. We cannot isolate ourselves.”

Moreover, all future energy paths have their costs: lower energy use could result 
in severe economic difficulties; higher  energy use allows for greater economic development, but poses more serious environmental dangers. The authors warn that increased use of fossil fuels could be constrained by the resulting CO2 releases into the atmosphere, which some scientists believe will lead to climatic changes.

As Professor Häfele, IIASA’s Deputy Director and Leader of the Energy Systems 
Program, put it: “It could be done, but only with pain and at high cost. However, if we 
fail to meet the challenge of the energy squeeze within the next couple of years, 
we may have to pay a much higher price in the long run. Time is our most scarce and 
valuable resource.”

In 1981 the results of the seven-year investigation  Energy in a Finite World was 
published by Ballinger Publishing Company in a volume subtitled Paths to a Sustainable 
Future. A second volume, subtitled A Global Systems Analysis, contains the detailed 
technical analysis. 

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Last edited: 06 February 2017



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