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Pedro Vergel

Pedro Vergel

Pedro Vergel has more than thirty-six years of experience in global oil and gas exploration and production operations. Pedro advises Schlumberger on process optimization and…

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How Energy Tech Can Meet Needs of Rapid Population Growth

How Energy Tech Can Meet Needs of Rapid Population Growth

Looking at global energy markets today, it is clear that current resources can meet growing energy demand.

During 2014, global primary energy consumption reached around 13,000 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) largely from fossil fuels (78 percent) with less than 20 percent from renewables, and nuclear power making up the remainder.

This mix will likely continue during next few decades, with varying percentages, growth (or contraction) rates from renewables, fossil and nuclear.

A clear opportunity comes from the fact that buildings account for about 40 percent of total global energy consumption; that natural gas usage is growing in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors, and also that a large percentage of produced liquid hydrocarbons are used for transportation.

It is estimated that the world’s population will reach about 7.5 billion as early as 2020. Large urban areas will expand even further, with higher energy demands and concentrations; rural areas are expected to continue demanding more access to energy and technology. Apart from the urgency of eliminating energy related deaths, the United Nations is highlighting that 1.2 billion people do not have access to electricity, and 2.8 billion still rely on unsustainable solid biomass for cooking and heating. Related: BP’s Risky Investments Turning Sour

Based on this scenario (supply and demand), an important energy infrastructure investment is needed to meet the rising global energy demand – estimated between $35 to $45 trillion within the next two decades.

There is no single solution to meet our future energy needs; instead, it would come from a combination of diverse energy sources and technologies as well as policies and actions. Renewables growth is expected to remain strong and rapidly growing, providing a cleaner and more energy efficient alternative for areas without access to electricity at present.

There are different strengths and weaknesses for each technology. For example, we could look at the energy footprint, a measure of the land required to produce an equivalent unit of energy.

This footprint can vary by orders of magnitude depending on the source and its maturity, with nuclear being the smallest, continuing in increasing order to geothermal, coal, natural gas, solar, conventional petroleum, hydropower, wind, biomass and biofuels.

Then there are net capacity factors, defined as the ratio of the actual output to the maximum it can produce. For instance coal, nuclear, biofuels and geothermal range from 80 to 95 percent; solar between 16 and 30 percent, and wind (onshore and offshore) 25 to 55 percent. Many of the renewable sources should be analyzed as seasonal and sometimes in hourly variations. Related: Texas Weathers The Oil Slump Better Than Expected

Here is another way of looking at this problem. A general and simplified footprint factor representation may be tried using the index value of 1.00 for conventional petroleum as the reference level for footprint. This will result in the following power sources with smaller than petroleum footprint factor: nuclear at around 0.06 to 0.10 (including the surrounding controlled exclusion zone), geothermal 0.20, coal 0.25, solar thermal 0.35, natural gas 0.4, solar photovoltaic 0.75.

With similar representation, the following power sources with larger than petroleum footprint factor are: hydropower 1.2, wind 1.6 and biomass varying from 6.0 up to 20.0 compared to petroleum footprint. Again, these figures are highly variable, depending on the different scenarios and conditions.

Technologies applied to develop unconventional resources brought a substantial reduction in surface footprint. The ability to drill multiple wells from a single well pad combined with drilling long / extended horizontal wells is providing access to a much larger subsurface spatial resource, at a greatly reduced surface footprint. It is estimated that, with equivalent energy output, shale gas development reduced footprint by a factor of 3 to 5 compared with conventional gas reservoirs (or a factor of 4.5 to 8 compared to wind farms or 2.5 to 4 compared with solar energy). This will further improve with evolving well construction techniques, re-fracturing, enhanced recovery, and detailed reservoir studies.

Solar photovoltaic land-use and total system efficiency is largely improved by installing rooftop panels in residential and industrial buildings while reducing electricity transmission losses. As reference, transmission lossess could reach up to 6 percent per 1000 km of line.

Onshore wind turbines can be optimized by using the land between them. In certain cases, the land could be used for agricultural, industrial and other activites. The previously discussed index – footprint factor – could drop from 1.6 to 0.1, with the consequent additional benefit. Certainly, a different consideration will apply if the land is not suitable for such purposes. Mixed solar-wind “farms” could further optimize land utilization at a higher total efficiency and investment payback. Related: The Four Noble Truths Of Energy Investing


We will continue seeing new and potentially disruptive technologies coming to market that will accelerate the implementation of greener energy sources, gradually replacing fossil fuel utilization – also providing energy access to areas where it is lacking today.

As mentioned before, there is no unique or winning solution to this multi variable scenario. To provide sustainability among different user segments, affordability and environmental compliance (World Energy Council defined “energy trilemma”), a complementary approach and attitude is needed to ensure a long term strategic allocation and balance of the different sources. Long-term investment mentality, technology and efficient production are needed, supported by a credible and effective global policy.

By Pedro Vergel for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • John D on July 24 2015 said:
    Funny how you can look at things in different ways. "Energy Tech can meet needs of rapid population growth". The way I see it, the world population was under 2 billion in 1900 when we started pumping oil out of the ground. Fertilizers, exporting of food, etc. allowed the population to explode to our current 7 billion or so. Is energy meeting the needs of a growing population, or is energy creating the growing population?

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