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