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WILLIAM TUCKER: Nils Bohr Vindicated Again — Predictions for the Future

By William Tucker

“Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”  That was Nils Bohr’s aphorism that made it into history, although in another one of those unpredictable twists the quote is now being attributed to Yogi Berra. 

It would be worth keeping that in mind, especially when we talk about energy independence.

Last August Mitt Romney set off gales of laughter when he suggested that North America – not the United States but North America – could achieve energy independence by 2020.  The poobahs of the press competed with each other to shout him down.  

“I’ve said it before – you can’t be serious about reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil unless you’re also serious about reducing U.S. consumption through energy efficiency and the cultivation of alternative sources,” wrote Bryan Walsh in Time.

“Whatever the hype in the U.S. about oil self-sufficiency and its benefits to energy security, America is a long way from achieving oil independence — let alone energy independence,” pronounced Martin Adams, energy editor for the Economist Intelligence Unit on Huffington Post. 

“The whole idea of energy independence is conceptually bogus,” wrote Matthew Yglesias on Slate.  

And Cory Suter, writing on PolicyMic, debunked Romney’s plan “in 10 simple charts.” 

So now here we are six weeks after the election and the debate has taken a 180-degree turn.  Now we’re not just talking about North American energy independence but independence for the United States.

The source of this highly optimistic view of the future has been the International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook report, released on November 14, one week after the election.  As Robert Samuelson reported in the Washington Post, “the agency comes to the startling conclusion that, by 2020, the United States will displace Saudi Arabia — albeit temporarily — as the world’s largest oil producer. Even more astonishing, the United States is projected by 2035 to be virtually self-sufficient in oil, with modest imports coming from secure suppliers.” 

Two weeks later, the Energy Information Administration, the federal government’s principal source of information, came out with an equally optimistic prediction, although it moved the moment of independence back a bit to 2040.  

So what are we to make of all this?  Certainly there’s a lot of partisan rancor in these debates.  Many of the same commentators who were laughing at Mitt Romney three months ago and now discussing whether President Obama should be given credit for putting the country on the path to self-sufficiency.  But the real problem is that such predictions almost always consist of projecting present trends into the future.  There’s no room for the unexpected.  Either that or the predictions are fudged so much that just about anyone could make them.

Take a look, for instance, at the EIA’s projections for the price of Brent crude over the next 30 years.  

By including a “high” and “low” projections with the “reference” trend, the report manages to determine that by 2040 the price in current dollars will be anywhere from $75 to $240 a barrel.  It’s hard to argue against that.  

Then there are EIA’s predictions for dry gas production from various sources:  

Here the EIA takes the trendline for shale gas from the last five years and projects it on a straight slope all the way out to 2040.  Every other source stays almost exactly the same as it is today except for the perfectly predictable slow decline of natural gas from conventional onshore wells.  Somehow it seems there must be other possibilities.

Finally, look at the EIA’s predictions for energy consumption by fuel:

What’s most notable about this graph is the contrast between the past (to the left of 2011) and the predicted future.  The last 30 years show a steep climb with ups and downs and considerable changes in all sources.  The future is portrayed as basically a flat continuation of the present.  Forty years from now no source’s slice of the pie varies more than 4 percent from what it is today.

I don’t have access IEA or EIA’s number-crunching, but one prediction I would make is that the future is going to be full of surprises.  Here are some wild guesses at a few of them:

  1. The decline of coal will be much more rapid than anticipated.  We started phasing out coal in the early 1970s on air pollution grounds but the trend was interrupted by the Carter Administration’s promotion of coal as the solution to the Energy Crisis and its simultaneous shackles on nuclear energy.  Almost half the nation’s coal plants are more than 50 years old and most of them still don’t have pollution equipment.  I would bet they will be phased out even without a crackdown from the EPA.
  2. Natural gas will begin to power significant portions of our transport sector.  There have been some experiments with compressed natural gas and converting methane to diesel but for my money the Fuel Freedom Foundation’s proposal to convert natural gas into methanol is the winning bet.  Methanol is the simplest liquid hydrocarbon and has been powering Indianapolis 50 cars since the 1960s.  We already have a methanol industry and prodigious amounts of natural gas.  All it would take to kick start the conversion would be for the EPA to make it legal.
  3. The hydrogen fuel cell will be part of the transition from oil to natural gas.  Fuel cells had a big run-up in the late 1990s but then faded from view. Stalwarts such as Ballard Power have continued to make headway, however, and hydrogen buses and cars and even a locomotive are starting to catch on in England.  Fuel cells will also find application as a stationary power source.  The hydrogen, of course, must be derived from natural gas. 
  4. The public will fall in love with small reactors.  I would peg this at somewhere around 2020.  At that point people are going to begin to realize that nuclear energy is not as frightening as they have been led to believe.  Right around that time the first commercial SMRs will be coming on line.  They will make nuclear seem warm and cozy and people will respond positively to the idea of burying a gazebo-sized reactor 40 feet below ground and having it power a city of 20,000 people.  No more carbon exhausts or grotesque, twenty-square-mile “farms” of solar collectors or windmills that only generate electricity 30 percent of the time.  SMRs will offer “distributed energy” and “microgrids” that will eliminate cross-country transmission lines and reduce the dangers of blackouts.  They will allow us to forget about climate change and go back to building a prosperous world.

Oh well, maybe this is just a pipedream.  None of this would fit into the charts, graphs and statistical extrapolations of the major prognosticators.  Still, I wouldn’t be against it.