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Toward a sustainable global energy supply infrastructure : net energy balance and density considerations


  • Kessides, Ioannis N.
  • Wade, David C.


This paper complements previous work on the economics of different energy resources by examining the growth potential of alternative electricity supply infrastructures as constrained by innate physical limits. Coal-fired generation meets the criteria of longevity (abundance of energy source) and scalability (effective capability to expand to the multi-terawatt level) which are critical for a sustainable energy supply chain, but it carries a very heavy carbon footprint. Renewables and nuclear power meet both the longevity and climate friendliness criteria. However, they vary in terms of their ability to deliver net energy at a scale needed for meeting a huge global energy demand. The low density of renewable resources for electricity generation and the current intermittency of many renewables limit their ability to achieve high rates of growth. And a significant global increase in nuclear power deployment could engender serious risks related to proliferation, safety, and waste disposal. Unlike renewable sources of energy, nuclear power is an unforgiving technology because human lapses and errors can have ecological and social impacts that are catastrophic and irreversible. The transition to a low carbon economy is likely to prove much more challenging than some optimists have claimed.

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  • Kessides, Ioannis N. & Wade, David C., 2011. "Toward a sustainable global energy supply infrastructure : net energy balance and density considerations," Policy Research Working Paper Series 5539, The World Bank.
  • Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:5539

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    2. Kubiszewski, Ida & Cleveland, Cutler J. & Endres, Peter K., 2010. "Meta-analysis of net energy return for wind power systems," Renewable Energy, Elsevier, vol. 35(1), pages 218-225.
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    4. Sagar, Ambuj D. & van der Zwaan, Bob, 2006. "Technological innovation in the energy sector: R&D, deployment, and learning-by-doing," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 34(17), pages 2601-2608, November.
    5. Fthenakis, Vasilis & Kim, Hyung Chul, 2009. "Land use and electricity generation: A life-cycle analysis," Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Elsevier, vol. 13(6-7), pages 1465-1474, August.
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    Cited by:

    1. Usubiaga, Arkaitz & Acosta-Fernández, José & McDowall, Will & Li, Francis G.N., 2017. "Exploring the macro-scale CO2 mitigation potential of photovoltaics and wind energy in Europe's energy transition," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 104(C), pages 203-213.
    2. repec:eee:energy:v:128:y:2017:i:c:p:540-549 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. repec:eee:rensus:v:81:y:2018:i:p1:p:76-92 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Heidari, Negin & Pearce, Joshua M., 2016. "A review of greenhouse gas emission liabilities as the value of renewable energy for mitigating lawsuits for climate change related damages," Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Elsevier, vol. 55(C), pages 899-908.

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    Energy Production and Transportation; Climate Change Mitigation and Green House Gases; Energy and Environment; Environment and Energy Efficiency; Energy Demand;

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