Will it be possible to use just renewable energies to reduce the world‘s fossil fuel consumption? Could fusion power help to reduce the world’s CO2 emissions? Sometimes the simplest questions are the most important – and the most difficult – to answer. A small excursion into recent energy problems and cutting-edge energy predictions may help to put these questions into the right focus and to provide proper answers.

A NEW ENERGY CONSUMING LIFE-STYLE

My grandparents generation will probably be remembered as the one that experienced the most incredible changes during their lives: they were born in a society where phone boxes were the only way to make calls, where travelling was a luxury reserved for the rich, where clothes were washed only by hand. Now, their generation uses mobile phones, travels by plane and owns washing machines. The changes that my grandparents have experienced during their lifetime are not without consequences for our society. The world energy consumption has grown enormously in the past 90 years, increasing to seven times that of 1930. This dramatic jump is not only related to the population growth. The world’s per capita energy-consumption has doubled the value from 1930: hence, our life-style has become much more energy-consuming in a very short period of time.

HIGH FOSSIL FUEL CONSUMPTION: NEED FOR AN ENERGY TRANSITION

To satisfy this thirst for energy, fossil fuel consumption was increased dramatically. Coal, oil and natural gas rapidly began to dominate the energy market. Now everyone is familiar with the effects of this “energy revolution”: the increased emission of greenhouse gases is affecting the natural environmental balance that has ruled on Earth for more than 100,000 years. A relentless global warming process is causing the ice to melt and the climate to change and has resulted in disastrous impacts on our lives. At the same time, the concentration of fossil fuels in few regions (Middle East, Russia etc.) is seriously undermining geopolitical stability. Hence, a society with low fossil fuel consumption has become a fundamental goal that must be achieved in order to restore the world‘s natural and geopolitical stability. The Paris agreement of 2016 is pushing towards this aim, even if it has some limitations.

PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT

info iconThe 2016 Paris Agreement is a major international accord on tackling climate change, supported by almost 200 countries. It aims to restrict the global average temperature to less than 2° C above pre-industrial levels, mainly by way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 2° C is seen to be a tipping point, beyond which irreversible climate changes will occur, leading to a devastating rise in sea levels, extreme droughts and wildfires. Fusion could provide an essential source of zero emission energy needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

RENEWABLE ENERGIES ALONE ARE NOT ENOUGH

In this context, renewable energies play a crucial role. Wind farms, solar panels, biomass, geothermal and hydro power plants represent valid energy sources that can help to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Nevertheless, a socio-economic study of EUROfusion published in 2016 estimates that by 2100 renewable energies will cover 68 % of the total electricity production, while 21 % will still be provided by fossil fuels and 11 % by nuclear fission. This scenario sets low CO2 emission targets, a condition that is helping the penetration in the market of renewable energies and does not consider fusion energy to be an option at all. Hence, it seems clear that renewable energies alone will not be able to completely conquer this energy transition.

A FULL ENERGY TRANSITION COULD BE ACHIEVED IN 2100

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The same EUROfusion socio-economic study also analyses a different scenario, one which considers a drastic reduction of the world per capita energy consumption, a low CO2 emission target and the first fusion power plant connected to the grid to be in operation by 2070. Considering that we are talking about developments that may be implemented in 50 years’ time, we should always be cautious with such timelines. Nonetheless, this study has interesting results: it predicts that, in 2100, 75 % of the total electricity production will be generated by renewable energies, 14 % by fusion power plants, 6 % by nuclear fission and only 5 % using fossil fuels. These estimations are telling us something quite intuitive: if we will bring about a drastic reduction of our per capita energy consumption, if we aid the development of renewable energies and if fusion power plants are able to start operating soon enough, the energy transition could be achieved fully by 2100. Fusion energy, then, would not be a childish tantrum of stubborn scientists that do not want to throw in the towel, but it seems it will be necessary in order for our society to restore the world‘s natural and geopolitical stability.

authorbox_Davide-SilvagniI am a former student of the European Master of Science in Nuclear Fusion and Engineering Physics and I recently started a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching. As an energy engineer, I believe that engineers should develop “appropriate technologies” for mankind. Fusion is one of these, since it may help to reduce CO2 emissions and the high fossil fuel dependency of our society, as I explain in my article.

Davide Silvagni (24) from Italy is currently based at: Garching, Germany. (Picture: private)