Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The future of energy

We looked back at the rise of Middle Eastern oil and imagined what lies ahead for the oil industry in Monday's post, "Oil: history and future".

Today, we'll extend the conversation beyond oil and take a quick look into our energy future.

What will the future of our energy use look like? Will oil and hydrocarbon energy continue to be plentiful, or will we require increased efficiencies and output from alternative energy sources to meet our energy needs?

If you've been keeping up with the changes in the global energy picture, you know that we are currently in a situation of shrinking oil supply and rising global demand. In fact, as energy investor and oil-man T. Boone Pickens has pointed out, global demand for oil currently exceeds available global supplies.

And you know what happens when the demand for a much-needed commodity is greater than its supply, right? The price goes up! Which is why Boone puts no stock in the current notion of an "oil bubble" driven by manipulation or speculative demand.

``There's nothing to it to start with,'' Pickens said in interviews at an American Wind Energy Association conference in Houston. ``That's not what happened. You have 85 million barrels a day of oil available in the global energy market and 86.4 million barrels a day of demand. So the price of oil is going to go up until you can kill demand.''

We're beyond "tight supply". The world is currently in an oil supply deficit. And while there have been some recent oil finds of a potentially large size in places like offshore Brazil, it will take time for those reserves to be proven and drilled/developed.

Even then, we are unlikely to come back to a point where new oil discoveries exceed our oil consumption. As Elliot Fishman points out in, "Oil: they're not making it any more":

"The year in which the world discovered the greatest amount of oil was 1964. Since that time we have generally found less and less each year. We have been consuming more oil than we find since 1982. We now consume four barrels of oil for every one discovered."

So now that we've addressed the topic of oil scarcity, let's move on to the next issue. What comes next after oil and fossil-fuel energy?

Anyone who's been keeping an eye open to these trends knows the conventional answer to this question. Our energy supply for transport fuels and power generation will come from a variety of sources, goes the common refrain, from "clean coal" and nuclear power to wind, solar, oil, and natural gas.

But what if our electric power grid starts to fall apart under the strain of heavy use and a lack of needed maintenance and improvements? Will we still be able to move towards an energy future of cleaner power from wind and solar, while providing enough electricity to power our homes and businesses?

People experimenting with off the grid energy solutions are probably living at the front lines of our energy future. It is from their experiences and notes that conventional energy users, like myself, might learn of innovations that will be increasingly used and adopted en masse, eventually changing the way we live and use energy.

Our cars may increasingly be powered through electricity from the grid in off peak hours, or via off-grid solar energy. New buildings will incorporate net-zero energy use designs and make increased use of solar power and other alternative energy sources for their electricity needs. These are the type of changes that could characterize our move from a system of centralized power to an era of decentralized power networks.

Of course, we don't know for sure how this will all play out. So we keep our eyes and ears open to changes that are sure to come, and try to understand what our best options for the future might be.

With that in mind, let me share some of my favorite energy sites and news resources with you.

1. The Energy Blog - One of the great energy-related sites that you'll find in our blogroll. The Energy Blog covers the latest news and developments in the fields of alternative energy, energy storage, and conventional hydrocarbon energy. An active site with lots of reader feedback and tons of helpful energy links.

2. The Oil Drum - TOD is a very interesting community-blog with a focus on peak oil and future energy sources. Lots of data-driven analysis of all things related to energy and energy use, with plenty of debate spilling over into the frequently long-running (and often illuminating) comment threads. Search the blog for past content on just about any energy-related subject or concept imaginable.

3. 321 Energy and GreenStockInvesting - Two great sites that will help you keep up to date with the latest energy news and headlines (grouped by subject). Both sites also feature original articles and editorials on energy and energy investments.

4. Financial Sense Online - FSO has a dedicated energy resource page in addition to the variety of energy-themed articles you'll find on the home page. Don't miss the weekly Financial Sense Newshour broadcast; Jim Puplava often hosts energy experts and industry figures as guests on his show, in addition to the weekly panel of energy watchers who join the FS News team.

Do you have a favorite energy blog or website, or some thoughts on our energy future? Add your two cents in to our comments section.