Global Energy Scenarios
Scenario 3. Technology Pushes off the Limits to Growth

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The other scenario drafts available for your comments are:
- Scenario 1: "The Skeptic" (a Business as Usual Scenario)
Scenario 2: "Environmental Backlash"(explores potential futures resulting from environmental backlashes from nature and the environmental movement)
Scenario 4: "Political Turmoil" (exploring potential implications of political instability)


On behalf of the Millennium Project of the American Council for the United Nations University, we have the honor to invite you to participate in the third phase of an international study to construct alternative global energy scenarios to the year 2020.

During the first phase, the Millennium Project's staff produced an annotated bibliography of global energy scenarios and related reports. This was used to design a Delphi questionnaire that collected judgments and some 3,000 comments from about 150 participants on potential developments that might affect the future of the global energy situation. These results were used to construct draft scenarios. Your views are invited to make these working draft scenarios more plausible and useful. They are for your review only and not for circulation, as they are rough working drafts. This is the working draft of the third scenario for your review. It explores potential futures resulting from new technologies; the next scenario will probe the effects of political turmoil. The two previous scenarios look at a business as usual future and an environmental backlash future.

The Millennium Project is a global participatory system that collects, synthesizes, and feeds back judgments on an ongoing basis about prospects for the human condition. Its annual State of the Future, Futures Research Methodology, and other special reports are used by decision-makers and educators around the world to add focus to important issues and clarify choices.

The results of all three phases of this international study will be published in the 2006 State of the Future. Complimentary copies will be sent to those who respond to this questionnaire. No attributions will be made, but respondents will be listed as participants.

Please submit your views on Scenario 3: "Technology Pushes Off the Limits to Growth" by March 30, 2006.

We look forward to including your views in the final construction of this scenario. The fourth scenario will be availabe for comments around March 28, 2006.

Best regards,

Jerome C. Glenn, Director, Millennium Project
Theodore J. Gordon, Senior Fellow, Millennium Project

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Instructions: Please add your comments in the blank spaces provided and at the end of the working draft of this scenario.

Scenario 3. Technology Pushes Off the Limits to Growth

Here in this world of 2020, population has grown to 7.5 billion people, the annual economy is approaching US$75 trillion[1], and the wireless Internet 4.0 is now connecting almost half of humanity. Synergies among nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (commonly known as NBIC technologies)[2] have dramatically improved the human condition by increasing the availability of energy, food and water, and by connecting people and information anywhere, anytime. The positive effects are to increase collective intelligence and to create value and efficiency while lowering costs.

The acceleration of technological development has opened the door to a continuous and rapid worldwide economic growth, and has in fact allowed the world to achieve energy sustainability using many different energy sources. The NBIC technologies are proving to be the key to a very bright future where

In fact, space exploration, artificial intelligence and robotics are close to a take-off point that some experts refer to as a technological "singularity."

The proper energy mix

It all started late in the 20th century. In 1992, an official announcement by the World Energy Council (WEC), based in London, stated clearly that the planet was not running out of energy resources. A few years later, the International Energy Agency (IEA), based in Paris, also confirmed that there was more than enough energy, including oil and gas, to last for many decades, maybe even centuries thanks to the availability of new technologies. Such news from two recognized institutions like the WEC and the IEA openly contradicted the pessimistic views of the previous reports of the Club of Rome, which had forecast in 1972 that the world would be running out of resources by the end of the 20th century. The major problems with the Club of Rome's computer models and its Limits to Growth report were that: first, they failed to consider technological change, second, they overlooked new energy sources (all the way from deeper resources within the Earth to new energy sources outside the planet), and third, they did not include resource substitution. Predictably enough, technological change, discovery of new resources, and resource substitution have been the three key energy drivers in the 21st century. There may be other energy drivers playing an important role, like

but they have had a smaller effect up to now.

After the oil shocks from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the price of oil declined in the 1990s and even dipped below US$10 per barrel in 1998. However, during the early 2000s, a long period of under-investment in the oil industry and the long and accelerating rise of China's economy made prices escalate to US$70 per barrel in 2005. That same year, a major hurricane, Katrina, hit the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed many offshore platforms plus several petroleum installations in Louisiana and Texas. Gasoline prices rose momentarily above US$3 per gallon in the USA and close to 2 per liter in some European countries. During the 2006 State of the Union address, the US president said that his country had an "addiction to oil" and that his country should reduce its dependence on oil from the Middle East by 75% by the year 2025.

The best way to eliminate the addiction to foreign oil was by accelerating breakthroughs in advanced energy technologies. Since 2001, the USA had spent nearly US$10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources. The plan was to accelerate breakthroughs in how homes and businesses used energy, and how automobiles were powered. There were programs to improve cars, make cleaner coal-burning power plants, convert coal into a gas and store its carbon dioxide emissions underground, and develop more efficient use of wind, solar cells, ethanol, and batteries for hybrid cars, etc.
[4] The new subsidies for coal, wind, solar, nuclear and ethanol were intended to diversify energy sources, first in the USA and then in the rest of the planet. Since it consumed roughly a quarter of all the energy produced in the world at that time, these programs ultimately had a profound impact on the future of energy around the world.

Last month, the new U.S. president gave her 2020 State of the Union address. She, the first female president of the USA, underlined the great progress made in terms of energy independence and energy diversification in the USA. Although the promises of neither the hydrogen economy nor nuclear fusion have yet been fulfilled, the USA is almost energy self-sufficient thanks to advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology. In fact, biofuels now account for over 20% of US vehicle combustibles and long-life, automatically rechargeable nanobatteries are all the rage in electric, flexi-fuel and hybrid cars. Additionally, tailor-made artificial bacteria using photoelectrosynthesis are becoming a surprisingly reliable and novel source of electricity production in new power plants.

Similar advances have been pioneered in other major countries, and Europe particularly emphasized a massive conversion program for old power plants. Japan, on another front, has led the world in energy conservation practices. Additionally, China, a rising economic power is now leading the way in car technologies and

Even poorer developing countries have become less dependent on imported energy, their industries are now less energy intensive, and they use energy much more efficiently. On average, the world energy intensity per unit of GDP has steadily decreased, even though our energy consumption is still increasing thanks to major new technological breakthroughs like

The energy “waves”

Due to the accelerated growth of many developing nations, led first by China and later by India, global economic growth has increased 4% annually on average during the first two decades of the 21st century. From 2000 to 2020, energy demand and supply have grown by 2% annually. This means a growth in the world's economy of 100% and a growth in energy consumption of almost 50% during the last two decades. This indicates a very healthy expansion of the energy sector and a sustained increase in energy efficiency. Thanks to the consistent strength and cooperation generated by continuous trade and investment flows, and barring wars and catastrophes, the world economy is also headed for more growth in the next few decades. Such growth will particularly benefit the poorer people who are still without any access to electricity, the number of which has fallen from close to 2 billion in 2000 to just over 1 billion in 2020, and electricity might actually reach everybody in the planet by the year 2040. World GDP growth of 4%, thanks to the continuous rise of China and now also India, is spreading to even poorer parts of the world. Additionally, there is a continuing decline in energy intensity, that is, the amount of energy required to produce a dollar (dinar, euro, pound, ruble, rupee, yen or yuan) of GDP. In other words, energy efficiency is increasing and less energy is needed to produce more, particularly now that so many nations are moving from industrial to post-industrial societies. Furthermore, poorer countries have been growing faster than richer countries and their economic stability is paving the road for continuous growth around the world.

Fossil fuels still represent over 80% of total energy supplies in the world today, in 2020, but the trend towards new energy sources is clear in the future thanks to the new technological developments. Coal production has basically remained stable between 2000 and 2020, which means that the share of coal has been decreasing in the last two decades mostly due to environmental considerations in the OECD nations even with the new zero-emissions FutureGen plants (based on the Integrated Sequestration and Hydrogen Research Initiative, ISHRI, program). Additionally, coal gasification (without hydrogen production or sequestration, IGCC) has also played a big role - especially with natural gas prices going up. China is still the largest producer and consumer of coal, and has begun to export it in gaseous form but forecasts indicate a future decline in coal-fired power plants, regardless of the existing huge coal reserves, which according to some experts could be adequate for almost two centuries.

Oil has maintained an annual growth slightly below 2%, that is, just below the average world energy growth. In fact, there is still plenty of oil yet to be produced: the first trillion barrels of oil were produced by 2000, and the second trillion will be produced before 2030. Nonetheless, there are still close to four trillion barrels of additional oil in the Earth, including regular conventional oil, deep water oil, super deep oil, enhanced oil recovery (EOR), Arctic oil, heavy oil and oil shales (see Figure 1). In fact, the reserves can still continue increasing depending on future prices and technological developments, including better recovery rates and production techniques for the 1.2 trillion boe (barrels of oil equivalent) in Canadian tar sands and the 1.3 trillion boe in Venezuelan Orinoco bitumen, for example. Many advances in oil exploration (advanced 3-D and 4-D seismic with sophisticated interpretation), drilling (extended horizontal wells and complex well profiles), offshoring (deepwater drilling and floating production units), reservoir management (digital reservoir simulation and optimized drilling), new field developments (offshore arctic and remote offtake) and

are continuously increasing the base of economically recoverable conventional and non-conventional oil. However, the price of oil - still below US$ 100 per barrel - is still high enough to motivate the search for alternative energy sources.

Figure 1: Oil resources according to production costs (US$ per barrel)

Source: Resources to Reserves--Oil and Gas Technologies for the Energy Markets of the Future. IEA, 2005

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The US-EU-Japan Consortium has just embarked on a massive, multi-pronged, research venture to find technologies that can be implemented quickly, safely, and with minimum investment that will provide energy from sources other than petroleum for the next 100 years.

The senior geologist is talking to the researchers on her staff at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "Well, people," she says, "we have the piece of the research pie that's called 'deep drilling'. That includes geothermal and anything more exotic that we can think of... We got this because our nuclear weapons work gave us some familiarity with the intense pressures and temperatures found deep in the earth. We're open for discussion."

A young astrophysicist on the team says, "I seem to remember that back in the 1970's Tom Gold proposed that methane was produced in an inorganic process, deep in the Earth, and was not from organic decay as most textbooks say. If so, it seeps upward until it gets trapped in domes and may even be forming now given the right conditions. The Russians said that Gold got the idea from them, but most of the scientific community thought the whole idea was bunk."

Another scientist says, "But I remember that there were experiments at Carnegie Institute or Indiana Center, under Henry Scott, I think, in which granite, water, and iron oxide were crushed in a diamond mill that essentially duplicated temperature and pressure conditions in the deep mantle - 12 miles or so - and presto - the water disassociated and the carbon atoms from the rock linked up with the liberated hydrogen to form methane. The iron oxide was a catalyst." [5]

"So," the leader says, "I take it you're suggesting we dig deep, really deep, to find the methane deposits and maybe the points of origin and maybe, just maybe, we'll find that methane production is a continuous process. OK. Good enough for now. Here are the assignments. Pick your favorites:

Team 1, engineering: How can we make drill bits and down hole tubes function at depths of 20 miles, when the rocks around them are hot enough and the pressures are high enough to break down water and granite?

Team 2, experimental geophysics: Can we scale-up Scott's experiments so that we can get clear validation and corroboration of his findings at more than milliliter quantities?

Team 3, economic: What's the cost of deep drilling? Can it pay off? And, even if we are successful, just how effective will massive increases in the amount of low-cost methane be in changing the energy scene? Do we need a new infrastructure or will it fit in?

Ten years later: large-scale experiments had confirmed the possibility of continuous generation of methane in deep Earth. The engineering team had pushed boldly ahead with drill bits built of nanotech materials that were harder and more heat resistant than diamonds; high intensity laser blasting pushed the down holes deeper. The well casings were essentially self-manufactured as the holes progressed. Drilling was taking place at 200 sites that had been identified as high probability locations by the United States and its closest allies. The project was called Journey to the Center of the Earth, after the H. G. Wells story, or among the thousands of scientists and engineers, and the media, simply "JuiCE."

At 20 miles they struck pay dirt, or rather pay gas:[6] massive quantities of gas, at high pressure, contaminated only by the oxygen liberated by the reaction (which made it somewhat dangerous)...

The infrastructure team was ready. Processes for converting the methane to methanol were known and methanol could be use as a liquid fuel. Since the combustion of methane is highly exothermic, it could serve as a fine heating fuel and as a source for generation of electric power. However, most exciting of all is the possibility of catalytic decomposition of methane into hydrogen (the start of the hydrogen economy?) and carbon nanofibers which can be extracted for other applications. [7]

The team had produced the technology, found the resources, and identified the geophysical processes by which methane was being continuously produced. The price of oil fell from its peak of close to US$200 per barrel to US$50. Governments of nations dependent on income from oil exports either collapsed and fell into chaos, or quickly allied with the new "energy nations."

The worldwide bestselling book of 2019 was Life After Oil by Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize and founder of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA). In his latest book, Yergin wrote about all the new possibilities for energy generation in a world where gas is overtaking oil as the main energy supply, and where new sources of energy will also soon be overtaking gas and eventually substituting for most fossil fuel production in the planet. However, there will be plenty of energy opportunities for everybody in a continuously globalizing world, including abundance of solar energy in Africa and the Middle East, bioenergy in the USA and India, and space solar power satellites in the USA, China, Japan and Russia, for example.

Yergin argued again that the world will never really run out of oil, but that it will be replaced by other cleaner, cheaper and more abundant energy sources. He reminded us of the five previous times when many "experts" thought that oil was being exhausted: in the 1880s, after the first world war, after the second world war, in the 1970s with the first oil shock, and in the early 2000s with all the talk about an approaching global Hubbert peak (just like a previous Hubbert peak in the USA during the 1970s). However, Yergin showed that oil production, and even oil reserves, had continued to grow, if only more slowly, around the world, from the North Pole to the South Pole, and even below the poles. He ended by quoting the famous dictum by Saudi Arabian Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani: "the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil". In fact, in the early 2000s, BP, formerly British Petroleum, rebranded itself as Beyond Petroleum and started working on solar energy and biofuels. That was a clear sign of how oil companies transformed themselves into full energy companies, leaving behind their humble beginnings in the restrictive petroleum fields. Even OPEC countries had to react and begin seriously thinking, for the first time, about Life After Oil.

By 2020, gas production has indeed caught up with oil production. The supply of gas doubled between 2000 and 2020, and it overtook coal production in 2016. Now, according to most forecasts, other energy sources will also catch up in the 2030s with gas and oil, which are both declining relatively. Even though there has never been any continuous shortage of coal, oil or gas, except for small local production problems sometimes caused by political disruptions or weather factors, the era of fossil fuels does seem to be reaching its zenith and might end in the next few decades. Indeed, other energy sources, including some not even considered today, will apparently be the dominant sector in the USA by 2040 (see Figure 2). These energy "waves" will also be seen soon in most of the world. They show a clear "decarbonization" trend going from hydrocarbon fuels with more carbon to those with more hydrogen: first, wood; second, coal; third, oil; fourth, gas; and maybe eventually pure hydrogen and solar energy (itself based on hydrogen).

Figure 2: Energy “waves” in the United States

Source: The Millennium Project based on US Department of Energy

Outside fossil fuels, nuclear energy has increased marginally and its share in the total generation of electricity has dropped by almost half, even though the third generation fission plants might eventually regain some terrain. Several nuclear reactors have been decommissioned in Europe, and the new nuclear plants have been concentrated in a list of very few countries. Many plants became obsolete and were closed without substitution, mostly in Europe, while new plants were opened in a few countries, mainly in Asia: first China, followed by India, Japan and South Korea. China has constructed 25 nuclear reactors in the last two decades, increasing its electrical capacity by 20 GW. Russia, similarly, built 30 reactors and brought up its share of nuclear energy to 25% of total electricity production, which allowed Russia to keep exporting more oil and gas. Otherwise, most other countries have not experimented much with nuclear energy because of its safety and environmental problems. Furthermore, nuclear fusion has not yet been successful. The ITER tokamak fusion reactor built in southern France by an international consortium (founded by China, Europe, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the USA) carried out its first plasma operations in 2018, with a budget overrun of 80% and two years behind schedule; however, it is estimated that much more research in plasma physics is needed before electricity-producing fusion power plants might become fully operational in one or two decades more. This will be an important step, since nuclear fusion is much more efficient than the chemical reactions using standard fossil fuels and it is substantially safer than nuclear fission (nuclear fusion is the energy process of the stars and it combines two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, to create helium). However, the technical issues to sustain a controlled plasma interaction will still need a lot of future research and

The energy “Internet”

Traditionally, the other main source of electricity generation has been hydropower. However, by 2020, most major dam projects have already been finished, particularly after the inauguration of the Three Gorges Dam in the Yangtze river in China. The Chinese dam was finally completed on 2010, almost two decades after the start of its construction and with a total cost of US$75 billion, making it the most expensive single project in human history. Its 26 generators have a combined capacity of 18 GW, which is almost equivalent to the total nuclear power of China. Even though hydropower can not keep increasing worldwide because of lack of more prospective sites, it still represents about 15% of total electricity generation, and a bit less than 5% of total energy production around the world.

Besides hydropower, other renewable sources have been growing steadily up to 2020. Solar thermal energy is used in many industrial, agricultural and home applications. Some solar thermal base load plants - e.g. tower of power - have become useful in certain areas: sunlight falls on mirrors, focusing on a boiler, which warms a fluid into a heat exchanger, and then steam turns conventional turbines. Silicon solar photovoltaic has also grown but it is still almost twice as expensive as other conventional sources, and it depends so much on weather conditions that it is extensively used only in isolated or remote locations where there is plenty of sunlight. However, continuous development of new plastic "nanosolar" electrical cells is about to reach break-even point.
[8] Geothermal and tidal energy have also improved a lot, but they are equally restricted to places that have the required special geological conditions. By 2020, solar power has reached 10% of total electricity capacity in Algeria, and geothermal power is 15% in El Salvador. Deep geothermal energy, sometimes called "hot rock energy," is finally being considered in many countries, starting with Australia about a decade ago.[9]

There are still huge differences in electricity generation from region to region, going from 90% fossil fuels in the Middle East, mostly oil and gas, to over 70% renewables in Latin America, mostly hydropower and biomass. In France close to 70% of the electricity is produced by nuclear energy, which it also exports to neighboring Belgium and Germany. On the other hand, countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Norway and Venezuela depend on hydropower for over 80% of their electricity. Hydropower depends on local conditions and regional geography, and the same can be said about wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power. In some places they are very important, but in others they are not possible at all, for example, hydropower production is over 90% in Norway but close to 0% in the Saharan countries, or wind provides the majority of Denmark's electricity, but 0% in Singapore. Thus, each energy source is specifically important in its own region, but not everywhere, and large countries like China, India and the USA rely on a variety of multiple sources of energy, which are normally connected through multiple grids.

Worldwide averages, despite the enormous regional disparities, are over 20% electricity generation from renewable sources: hydroelectricity, wind energy and solar power with each close to 5%, followed with less than 1% by geothermal and tidal power. The rest is now provided by new biofuel sources, both natural and artificial. Renewables have been and will be the sector growing the fastest, led by new sources like biofuels. Traditional biomass consumption will fall with development and urbanization, but it will be replaced by other renewables which will supply new urban energy needs. Additionally, biofuels have had an enormous growth from close to 0% of total consumption in 2000 to almost 5% worldwide in 2020. Fortunately, thanks to the spread of local, national, regional and global electrical grids, there is a growing balance and compensation in energy capacities around the world. Electrification has continued aggressively, and the "powerless" regions, mostly concentrated in Africa and South Asia, are shrinking. In a high-tech world, spreading grid-electricity will not be the most sophisticated way for far away communities, since off-grid, decentralized energy systems are beginning to flourish, especially in regions with low population density.

In 2018, Rahul Gandhi, the heir of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, became Prime Minister of India and proposed the creation of the Indo-European Electrical Network (IEEN). This was partly motivated by his dream of connecting his own two worlds, the Indian subcontinent of his father Rajiv and the Italian birthplace of his mother Sonia. Rahul Gandhi signed the agreement with Angela Merkel, then President of the European Union, and construction of the missing links in this energy grid started immediately. 2019 saw the completion of the southern route that connected India to Europe through the Middle East, which basically followed the ancient paths of the Silk Road. This southern route also relied on the GCCG (Gulf Cooperation Council Grid) finished in 2012 and the MEDRING (Mediterranean Ring) completed on 2015. The northern route, from India to Europe through Russia, was still under construction in 2020, but it should officially open in early 2021. The success of the IEEN has been so great that other countries quickly want to join now, all the way from Africa to East Asia, including Australia and New Zealand, and these connections are planned for 2022. The complete redundancy and spare capacity of the IEEN are fundamental to its functioning; every part of its decentralized and automatically redistributed electrical mesh has backups and multiple alternatives. Just as the Internet did before for telecommunications, the IEEN has enabled continuous and reliable electrical interconnections among peoples and nations. In fact, the new electrical grids are becoming something like an energy Internet. The differences in peak-load time from East to West and from North to South have helped to increase efficiency and redundancy to these global electric networks. This has been particularly important in order to reduce the political threats and increase the electrical surplus.

The Americas had already been connected since 2015, when the Pan-American Electrical Grid (PAEG) was completed. In fact, the PAEG was an outgrowth of the Pueblo-Panama Plan (PPP), started by Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2006 and finally connecting Mexico to Panama in 2010. The final electrical links between Mexico and the USA were also completed in 2011, and Brazil eventually got connected to all its neighbors by 2015. First the PAEG and now the expanded IEEN will achieve the dream of connecting all humanity when the electrical grid is finally closed between Siberia and Alaska in 2023. This will be a major advance for the whole planet and will bring reliable electricity to every corner in every continent. The ideas of visionary thinker Buckminster Fuller and his Global Energy Network ( will soon be realized, and this will bring more contacts and more exchanges between all the nations, while reducing and almost eliminating the fear of conflicts in a totally interconnected and interdependent world. In fact, Buckminster Fuller spoke of playing not "war games" but "world games" to bring peace and prosperity to every nation on Earth. Electrification has brought development to the poorest parts of the world and the continuous acceleration of growth to a globalized world. This created a virtuous cycle of energy increase and economic development. Furthermore, new technologies and better materials also improve transmission line efficiencies and

From fossil fuels to bioenergy

Another major piece of news in the energy industry has been the impressive growth of many forms of "bioenergy", which originally started with bioalcohols in the 1970s and biodiesels in the 1990s. Bioalcohol, or commonly just called ethanol for its main chemical component, has grown from almost nothing in 1980 to 20 billion liters in 2000 and almost 200 billion liters in 2020, that is, close to 20% of the total car gasoline market in the world today. Similarly, biodiesel has grown from about zero in 1990 to 1 billion liters in 2000 and around 30 billion liters in 2020, which is almost 2% of the total diesel consumption in the world.

The bioalcohol or ethanol industry started in Brazil after the oil shock in the 1970s. It had a first successful phase during the 1980s with the introduction of the first ethanol engines, but it slowly decayed in the 1990s with the decrease of oil prices. However, it had a major revival in the early 2000s with the appearance of the first flexible fuel cars. The flexi-fuel engines could use gasoline, ethanol or any mixture in between. Additionally, by the time that the first flexi-fuel cars appeared, all gasoline sold in Brazil had between 20% and 25% alcohol added to it, and it had an equivalent price to gasoline per mileage driven. Ethanol and flexi-fuel cars allowed Brazil to stop importing gasoline and start exporting bioalcohols in 2005. By 2010, all new cars sold in Brazil had flexi-fuel engines, and ethanol became one of the major Brazilian exports, mostly to Japan and other Asian countries. Brazil produces ethanol from sugarcane, and it has substantially increased its yield from 300 m³/km² in 1980 to 550 m³/km² in 2000 and 900 m³/km² in 2020, thanks to biotechnology that has now made ethanol 20% cheaper than oil. Brazil has been so successful with bioalcohol that is now producing ethanol powered aircraft engines. Furthermore, some Brazilian companies are starting to replace petrochemicals with bio alternatives. This wise business choice leaves Brazil less vulnerable to price spikes than competitors who still rely exclusively on oil and gas.

The United States started a similar program in the 1990s but based on corn, first in Minnesota and other corn-belt Midwest states. Minnesota had 10% ethanol in all its gasoline and 20% was required by law beginning in 2013. Soon other states followed. In Europe, E85 fuel (a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline by volume, also sometimes called bioalcohol BA85) was doing well in Sweden and quickly spread through much of Europe. However, higher costs in Europe and unavailability of more land have impeded its faster replacement of gasoline. Biodiesel started in Europe where there was an important fleet of diesel vehicles, and it could be produced from a variety of sources - from soybeans to rapeseed, including algae. India started a very successful pilot plan in 2006 to produce 10 million liters of biodiesel on 8,000 hectares of marginal wasteland with Jatropha curcas, which is a non-edible oil crop that is drought-resistant. The experiment was so successful that BP and New Delhi-based TERI (The Energy and Energy Resources Institute) started commercial production in 2016 after increasing the yield per hectare by 400% thanks to biotechnology. The biodiesel fuel program started as a cheap alternative fuel for the typical Indian three-wheeled diesel motor rickshaw and the fuel now is beginning to be exported; however, there is a limit to such exports since India has little marginal land and it needs its arable land for food production. Biofuels based on cellulosic ethanol, which is made of more abundant and less expensive biomass, is now proving very successful in many countries.

Transportation (by land, air or sea) still consumes about 20% of the total energy supplied worldwide and about 60% of the oil produced. That is why the advance of biofuels has been so important, particularly with car ownership rising tremendously around the world. For example, in China personal transportation was mostly by means of bicycles in 1980, but had 10 million private cars in 2000 and almost 80 million cars in 2020. There is still much room for expansion, since this represents only 6 cars per 100 people in China versus 80 in the USA (that is, a total of 260 million cars in the USA). The Chinese growth has been incredible, however, and it will soon be replicated by other countries moving up the economic development ladder.

Thanks to its rapid growth, China has positioned itself as the most efficient producer of the most efficient cars in the planet. China now produces over 10 million cars per year, almost as many as Europe, Japan or the USA. Nonetheless, the Chinese are the most energy-efficient cars with mpg (miles per gallon) ratings of over 100. China copied the flexi-fuel cars from Brazil and combined them with the hybrid cars from Japan (gasoline-electric vehicles, which use gasoline and electric batteries to power internal-combustion engines, or ICE, and the electric motors) to create the hybrid flexi-fuel cars that also run on electrical energy with nanobatteries.

The United States created the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations in 1975 and slowly increased the standards for normal engines to achieve 25 mpg by 2000, when the first Japanese hybrid cars by Toyota reached 50 mpg (and all Toyota cars sold after 2012 were hybrid with 60 mpg or more). Additionally, the Brazilian cars of the early 2000s added the possibility of combining different fuels in variable mixtures since the engines had internal control mechanisms to adjust their functioning to changing fuel conditions, well the first European commercial electric cars transformed chemical energy stored on the vehicle in batteries. In 2015, the Chinese created the first sophisticated electrical engines with nanobatteries for hybrid cars with flexi-fuel engines. These "electric-flex-hybrid" cars (or simply EFHs) have now become a major export from China and GM (Guangzhou Motors, the main manufacturer in Guangdong province) expects to keep developing better batteries, thanks to the continuous breakthroughs in nanotechnology, to reach 120 mpg by 2022 (and some experts also plan to incorporate fuel cells into these cars once their costs come down enough). The new cars are not only cheaper but also run on any possible combination of biofuels and electricity, reduce fuel emissions substantially, will be able to plug-in anywhere along the energy "Internet" and

The new Chinese EFHs are revolutionizing the world in the 2020s even more than the Ford Model T changed the USA in the 1910s.

The cells of life

The present energy and transportation revolutions also include creating biofuels directly from living cells, not from long-dead fossil fuels or from recently harvested sugarcane or palm oil, but from real living cells. In fact, generating and using energy is what life is all about. Every child today knows that plants transform carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. Indeed, that is simply called photosynthesis and its simple chemical expression is::

CO2 + 2 H2O + light → (CH2O) + O2 + H2O

Thus, plants use light and some simple chemical molecules to create carbohydrates, or hydrocarbons with oxygen (carbohydrates are really nothing more than hydrocarbons plus oxygen). Additionally, about 114 kilocalories of free energy are stored in plant biomass for every mole of CO2 fixed during photosynthesis. Solar radiation striking the earth on an annual basis is equivalent to 174,000 Terawatts (which is several thousand times the current global energy consumption) and only part of this light is used for photosynthetic energy capture (see Table 2). Approximately two-thirds of the net global photosynthetic production is terrestrial (i.e., land based), while the remainder is produced mainly by phytoplankton (microalgae) in the oceans which cover approximately 70% of the total surface area of the Earth. Since biomass originates from plant and algal photosynthesis, both terrestrial plants and water microalgae are appropriate targets for increasing biomass energy production.

Plants do it, most algae do it too, and even some very simple bacteria can fix carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates and oxygen under the influence of light. In fact, many simple cells can do photosynthesis and similar biochemical processes. Making hydrocarbons is one of the simplest biological processes, as a famous report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) explained late last century.
[10] Hydrocarbons are not complicated molecules with thousands of atoms and a number of elements, like proteins and enzymes; they are just small molecules with two of the most common elements on Earth: hydrogen and carbon. Surprisingly, it took many scientists and many years to artificially create the first commercial hydrocarbons from living carbohydrates and not from fossil fuels.

Craig Venter, one of the biologists who sequenced the human genome in 2000, founded later a company whose purpose was precisely to create life. In fact, Venter famously said that he spent 20 years of his life trying to "read" life, and that he would expend another 20 to "write" life. His company Synthetic Genomics was one of the pioneers dedicated to using modified microorganisms to biologically produce alternative fuels like ethanol and hydrogen.[11] In fact, many other such enterprises followed soon, and the first artificial life forms, virus and bacteria, were created in 2003 and 2005, respectively. One of Venter's research associates, Mohan Kapoor from India, was the first who managed to create artificial bacteria to economically produce hydrocarbons in 2018. He had been working since 2015 with Clostridium acetobutylicum and other bacteria until he managed to tailor-make a new hybrid organism that efficiently produced hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide and water under controlled lighting.

Clostridium acetobutylicum is a commercially valuable bacterium, sometimes called the "Weizmann Organism", after Chaim Weizmann, who in 1916 helped discover how Clostridium acetobutylicum cultures could be used to produce acetone, butanol and ethanol from starch using the ABE (Acetone, Butanol, Ethanol) process to satisfy such industrial purposes as gunpowder and TNT production. The ABE process was an industry standard until the 1950s when low oil costs drove production to more efficient methods based on hydrocarbon cracking and petroleum distillation techniques. C. acetobutylicum also produces acetic acid (vinegar), butyric acid (a vomitous smelling substance), carbon dioxide and hydrogen. These technologies are proving so successful that they are now being used also to start factories that use cellular processes to create efficient organisms to digest heavy oil and get more of the residuals. Other planned energy projects involving these new biotechnological developments include

Mohan Kapoor called his new bacteria Petroleum artificiali and started a marketing test in November, 2019. It is expected that his bacterium that "eats" carbon dioxide and "drinks" water under light, 24 hours a day, in order to "excrete" hydrocarbons will truly revolutionize the world. Not only will it produce hydrocarbons continuously, but it will also capture carbon dioxide and generate free oxygen and energy. If there are no major problems, production of new fuel excreted by Petroleum artificiali will become financially viable in 2021 and will take care of the carbon sequestration problem. Additionally, other scientists are now working or more specific bacteria to generate ethanol, methanol and pure hydrogen. This will eventually allow us to artificially produce all kinds of biofuels according to specific needs, trying to get the best fuel value or relative energy density (that is, the quantity of potential energy in fuel, food, or other substance, see Table 1).

Table 1. Relative energy density of different fuels

Fuel type
Energy content (MJ/kg)
Pumped stored water at 100 m dam height
Coal (anthracite, lignite, etc.)
23 - 29
Ethanol (bioalcohol)
LPG (liquefied petroleum gas)
Oil (medium petroleum average)
Gasohol or E10 (90% gasoline and 10% alcohol mix)
Methane (gaseous fuel, compression-dependent)
Hydrogen (gaseous fuel, compression-dependent)
Nuclear fission (Uranium, U 235)
Nuclear fusion (Hydrogen, H)
Binding energy of helium (He)
Mass-energy equivalence (Einstein's equation)
Antimatter as fuel (estimated according to E = mc2)

Source: The Millennium Project based on IEA and U.S. Department of Energy

Some fundamentalist ecologists have started to complain that a full environmental impact analysis has to be performed on such artificial organisms, since they could destroy the delicate balance on Earth. They argue that the processes may work in the laboratory but may have large impacts when scaled up to achieve meaningful production quantities. They worry about escaping molecules, and interfering with natural evolutionary processes. There are even objections from religious fundamentalists of all sects. However, the public is realizing that this is nothing more than a new scientific breakthrough, like the "green revolution" that increased agricultural yields and avoided the starvation deaths of millions of Indians in the 1970s. More recently, the new bacteria can be compared to the biologically engineered Chinese chicken wings grown directly from chicken stem cells in 2014 without the need to actually reproduce a whole chicken to be killed later for its wings and other body parts; or the Japanese Kobe beef produced genetically from premium cow cells in 2015 without having to grow cattle to be later slaughtered. The "chickenless" Chinese chicken wings and the "cowless" Japanese Kobe beef are also over ten times cheaper to produce and totally avoid any risks of animal problems, including Avian flu or mad cow disease, respectively. Both of these products have been massively and successfully produced by GM2 (Guangzhou Meats & Meals, the main "meat creator" in Guangdong province) for worldwide exports since 2016. In fact, even McDonald's advertises its new "cowless" hamburgers based on ethical grounds, since they don't butcher any animals and the hamburgers are much cheaper and nutritious than the non-genetically produced ones.

Space and the future

The other important cells for current energy production are the fuel cells that convert biofuels into electrical energy. Fuel cells were first industrialized during the 1960s by NASA in order to generate electricity for the Apollo missions, and they were later used in the space shuttle and International space station. Fuel cells have very high efficiencies in converting chemical energy to electrical energy since they not constrained by the maximum Carnot cycle efficiency as combustion engines are. A combustible fuel reacts with oxygen in a fuel cell to transform chemical energy into electricity with efficiencies of more than 60% today, as compared to only 40% at the start of the century.

Fuel cells are being used almost everywhere, in homes, industries, cars or even rockets. They can also use many types of fuels, from pure hydrogen to landfill waste, in order to produce electricity. If pure hydrogen is "burnt" with oxygen, then water is the only emission. If hydrocarbons are used, then carbon dioxide is also produced; and the more carbonated the hydrocarbons are, the more carbon dioxide will be emitted. The main problem with fuel cells is their high cost, which has been reduced but it is still elevated in 2020, even with the current high-temperature and catalysis breakthroughs. Nanotechnology is currently being used to try to lower the manufacturing costs of fuel cells, just like was done with nanobatteries after 2015.

Additionally, the fuel costs of using hydrogen combustible with fuel cells have come down from 8 cents per mile in 2000 to 3 cents per mile in 2020, but that is still 50% more than the cost of fuel for hybrid flexi-fuel internal combustion engines (ICEs). Compared with other hydrocarbon fuels, the cost of using fuel cells and ICEs are similar, which is why the Chinese EFHs do not use pure hydrogen as fuel. However, the cost of the fuel cell itself is still elevated and their disposal is dangerous since they are highly contaminating, but fuel cells convert energy with over 60% efficiency versus 20% for ICEs. Ethanol is an excellent combustible, since hydrogen-rich fuels like methanol or ethanol (methane hydrate, natural gas, gasoline, diesel and even gasified coal), just produce heat and water, plus some carbon dioxide depending on the hydrocarbon molecular weight.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth. It is the basic component of water, not to mention virtually every fuel ever used by humankind, wood, oil, coal and natural gas, all of which are made of hydrocarbons. Pure hydrogen, however, does not occur naturally: hydrogen must be harvested using electrical or chemical processes, which have their own hidden environmental consequences; besides, hydrogen is only an energy carrier and it has to be produced from water or hydrocarbons. Obviously, using renewable resources to power those processes could vastly reduce the environmental footprint of hydrogen production, but, at present, producing hydrogen for fuel costs several times more than conventional fuels.

Iceland has made a major effort to become the first "hydrogen economy" in the world, since the start of this century, and its advances by 2020 are notable. Nonetheless, Iceland is the special case of a country with over-abundant and readily available hydroelectric and geothermal energy that can be used to produce hydrogen as a carrier or storage of energy for later use. The hydrogen produced in Iceland is mostly for transportation since, for other activities, it is more convenient to create electricity directly, without intermediaries (just like making Japanese Kobe beef without the intermediate step of the cow). The hydrogen for cars is later used by the fuel cell to transform its chemical energy into electric and mechanical energy to drive the car. Iceland, a country with excess energy, has chosen to electrolyze water and began exporting the hydrogen contained in high pressure tanks, and in the form of metal hydrides, since hydrogen is released from the hydrides with just a bit of heat.

Hydrogen has not yet become the main energy source, as dreamed by many in the early 2000s, because it is still costly to produce, dangerous to store safely, difficult to transport, tricky to distribute, and its volumetric energy intensity is much lower than that of other liquid fuels like ethanol or gasoline (although not in the form of metal hydrides). Safety would be another problem and it would be an enormous job, and would take many years, to accomplish the logistics and infrastructure changes required for moving from standard liquid fuels to hydrogen. The best idea here seems to be the "hydrogen battery", a block of metal hydride storing hydrogen at densities higher than liquid hydrogen. When a hydrogen powered car needs a fill up, the "gas stations" of the hydrogen era would simply exchange the hydrogen batteries, probably automatically. However, continuous research is being carried out to increase the efficiency and reduce the costs of the so-called hydrogen economy. Even the use of advanced fission nuclear plants is still considered to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. The theoretical potential of hydrogen as an energy source is certainly incredible, but

The new space race has also had some very important consequences for the energy sector. The Chinese landed on the Moon in 2015 as promised, and the Russians followed one year later, after resurrecting their rocket technologies of the 1950s and 1960s. A combined European, Japanese and US manned mission also landed in 2017. A Moon base called Luna 1 was started in 2019 and Nikolai Sevastyanov, Honorary President of RKK Energiya, just announced plans to begin mining the moon to bring helium 3 (He 3) to Earth in the Russian Kliper spacecraft. According to Sevastyanov, there is enough helium in the Moon to power all human needs for at least a century.
[13] Indeed, the binding energy of helium is much higher than nuclear fission, and even nuclear fusion (see Table 1). However, the space race has opened new and easier sources like space solar power satellites.

The Japanese have been experimentally using robotic "spiders" to build large-scale structures in space for over 10 years. The tiny mechanical spiders inch their way across large nets of fabric in space performing small tasks or lining up to create an antenna or some other structure. The concept is known as a Furoshiki satellite after the Japanese word for a cloth used to wrap up possessions.[14] It has recently been revolutionizing satellite-based applications such as telecommunications, navigation and Earth observation using radars, by providing cost-effective large antennas in space that can be launched on relatively small rockets. More importantly, the Furoshiki spacecraft could be a viable way to create large space solar power satellites to then beam energy to the Earth. In fact, the amount of energy received from the Sun in the Earth's atmosphere is enough to power one thousand civilizations like ours. That kind of energy is what was called a Type I civilization in the energy scale devised by Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964 (see Table 2). The famous English-American physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson had similar ideas about more advanced civilizations building spheres around their Suns in order to capture all of the radiated energy. He even proposed searching for indications of such spheres having already being built by other civilizations.[15]

A Type I civilization is one that is able to harness all of the power available on a single planet (in our case, Earth specifically has an available power of 174 × 1015 W). A Type II civilization is one that is capable of harnessing all of the power available from a single star (approximately 386 × 1024 W for our Sun), a Type III civilization will be able to harness all of the power available from a single galaxy (approximately 5 × 1036 W for the Milky Way, but this figure is extremely variable since galaxies vary widely in size). Additionally, a Type IV civilization will have control of the energy output of a galactic supercluster (approximately 1046 W) and a Type V civilization will control the energy of the entire universe (approximately 1056 W). However, such a civilization approaches or surpasses the limits of speculation based on current scientific understanding, and may not be possible. Frank J. Tipler’s Omega point would presumably occupy this level.[16] Finally, some science fiction writers talk about a Type VI civilization that will control the energy over multiple universes (a power level that is technically infinite) and a Type VII civilization that will have the hypothetical status of a deity (able to create universes at will, using them as an energy source). Table 2 shows the power in watts produced by various different sources of energy. They are grouped by orders of magnitude, or a factor of one thousand in each group.

Table 2: Energy scale and Kardashev civilization types
Example Power Scientific notation
Power of Galileo space probe's radio signal from Jupiter 10 zW 10 × 10-21 watt
Minimum discernable signal at an FM antenna terminal 2.5 fW 2.5 × 10-15 watt
Average power consumption of a human cell 1 pW 1 × 10-12 watt
Approximate consumption of a quartz wristwatch 1 µW 1 × 10-6 watt
Laser in a CD-ROM drive 5 mW 5 × 10-3 watt
Approximate power consumption of the human brain 30 W 30 × 100 watt
Power of the typical household light bulb 60 W 60 × 100 watt
Average power used by the human body 100 W 100 × 100 watt
Approximately 1000 BTU/hour 290 W 2.9 × 100 watt
Power received from the Sun at the Earth's orbit by 1 m2 1.4 kW 1.4 × 103 watt
Photosynthetic power output per km2 in ocean 3.3 - 6.6 kW 3.3 - 6.6 × 103 watt
Photosynthetic power output per km2 in land 16 - 32 kW 16 - 32 × 103 watt
Range of power output of typical automobiles 40 - 200 kW 40 - 200 × 103 watt
Mechanical power output of a diesel locomotive 3 MW 3 × 106 watt
Peak power output of largest class aircraft carrier 190 MW 190 × 106 watt
Power received from the Sun at the Earth's orbit by km2 1.4 GW 1.4 × 109 watt
Peak power generation of the largest nuclear reactor 3 GW 3 × 109 watt
Electrical generation of the Three Gorges Dam in China 18 GW 18 × 109 watt
Electrical power consumption of the United States in 2001 424 GW 424 × 109 watt
Electrical power consumption of the world in 2001 1.7 TW 1.7 × 1012 watt
Total power consumption of the United States in 2001 3.3 TW 3.3 × 1012 watt
Global photosynthetic energy production 3.6-7.2 TW 3.6-7.2 × 1012 watt
Total power consumption of the world in 2001 13.5 TW 13.5 × 1012 watt
Average total heat flux from earth's interior 44 TW 44 × 1012 watt
Heat energy released by a hurricane 50-200 TW 50-200 × 1012 watt
Estimated heat flux transported by the Gulf Stream 1.4 TW 1.4 × 1012 watt
Total power received by the Earth from the Sun (Type I) 174 PW 174 × 1015 watt
Luminosity of the Sun (Type II) 386 YW 386 × 1024 watt
Approximate luminosity of the Milky Way galaxy (Type III) 5 × 1036 W 5 × 1036 watt
Approximate luminosity of a Gamma Ray burst 1 × 1045 W 1 × 1045 watt
Energy output of a galactic supercluster (Type IV) 1 × 1046 W 1 × 1046 watt
Energy control over the entire universe (Type V civilization) 1 × 1056 W 1 × 1056 watt

Source: The Millennium Project based on Wikipedia [17]

According to Kardashev, our civilization is still at Type 0, but might reach Type I in the 22nd century. However, in the year 2020, we know that we still have available a variety of resources to create a diversified energy matrix depending not on one single energy source but on a mixture of alternatives, at least during this critical transition period.

The Earth, the Sun, the Galaxy and the Universe have more than enough energy resources to power our civilization for the next decades, centuries and millennia. With the proper technology, it is basically a matter of costs and priorities. Converting the energy resources into available supplies can be done, but it will certainly take massive investments and lots of imagination, creativity, science and engineering. All resources are obviously finite, but some are almost potentially inexhaustible even with an accelerating growth and rapid technological change. Methane hydrate, hydrogen, helium, nuclear fusion, solar, mass-energy conversion, and antimatter fuels are all eventually possible. Our civilization is still in its infancy, and barring any wild cards, geopolitical crisis, environmental disasters or extraterrestrial contacts, technology will keep pushing off the limits to growth.

What would make this scenario more plausible and useful?

Thank you very much for your participation.


1. All dollars are in 2006 values
2. See:
3. See:
4. See:
5. This is an actual occurrence. See: Nicholas Wade, "Petroleum From Decay? Maybe Not, Study Says," New York Times, September 14, 2004
6. Previously the deepest hole in the United States was the Berth Rogers gas well in Oklahoma (6 miles). On the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk, a hole was drilled 8 miles in depth; the temperature at the bottom of that hole was 190 degrees C.
7. See: K. Otsuka and S. Takenaka, "Production of Hydrogen from Methane by a CO2 Emission-Suppressed Process: Methane Decomposition and Gasification of Carbon Nanofibers," Catalysis Surveys from Asia, June 2004, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 77-90(14)
8. See: and
9. See:
10. See: This is an excellent FAO report led by some prominent Japanese scientists about renewable biological systems for alternative sustainable energy production
11. See:
12. See:
13. See:
14. See:
16. See:

17. See:

Survey conducted by the Millennium Project of the ACUNU