EFDA Newsletter (EN): Past warnings that the world will soon “run out of oil” have been compared with Æsop’s* fable of the shepherd’s boy who cried, “Wolf!”. To date, the warnings – as in the fable – have proven to be unfounded. But in your opinion will technology advance rapidly enough to extend oil resources and facilitate a smooth transition to other energy sources?

N. Nakićenović (NN): Definitely yes. One has to distinguish between reserves and resources. Most of the concern has been about reserves, which are usually defined as the amount of oil that can be extracted with the current knowledge, technology and costs. That amount lasts historically 40 to 50 years. The other concept, the resources, is where there is a lot of confusion. The resources are much larger but they have either not been discovered, just inferred, or too expensive to extract them or we simply don’t have the technology. Over the years there has been a transfer from resources to reserves, this is why we have always had a limited amount of oil reserves. Indeed the current reserves will run out by the middle of the century, but they will be replenished with what we currently don’t consider to be reserves, either conventional or unconventional resources. Another big future option is natural gas and other energy gases that might be produced from non-fossils. Gas is much more abundant than oil, and doesn’t cause as many environmental problems.

EN: The impression nowadays is that the problem of the limited resources is secondary to the environmental issue. Do you share this idea?

NN: Absolutely. I think if the question was asked “what’s the ultimate limitation to energy use?”, my answer today is: generally of course technological change, but the ultimate limitation are the planetary processes. Humanity is already influencing planetary processes and energy is a big part of that equation – carbon dioxide emissions and climate change is the ultimate limit, not how much energy we can extract. Paul J. Crutzen, who won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1995, suggested to call this period in the evolution of earth “Anthropocene” to characterise this immense influence of humanity on the planet itself and on the planetary processes and systems. So the environment and the limitations of our planet are indeed the major obstacle to further increase the energy use as we have known it historically.

EN: Do you think that a complete switch out of fossil fuels will happen before they run out?

Prof. Nebojša Nakićenović is project leader for Transitions to New Technologies (TNT) at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg and Professor of Energy Economics at Vienna University of Technology (Austria). Find a short CV of Prof. Nakićenović on our



NN: Generally we switch to new technologies because they provide new opportunities, have characteristics that the society needs, not because they physically run out. Important reasons are climate and environment and the need for a very much larger concentration of energy.

EN: These days, most “shepherd’s boys” follow the principle “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. What can you predict for the world’s future energy supply from the viewpoint of your TNT project?

*Æsop: Greek writer, lived around 620 – 560 BC

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NN: We really cannot ‘predict’ future energy use, we ‘invent’ it through scientific scenario analysis. One of the major challenges in energy is that 2 billion people today do not have access to modern energy services and there will be more people in the world, so we have to at least double, triple or quadruple energy service, let’s say over the next century. From my point of view a scenario that would be interesting is timely provision of adequate energy services and affordable ones, without adversely affecting human life and protecting the environment. I think there will be three sets of technologies for that. The most important one from current perspectives and economically most attractive is actually improving energy efficiency and rational use of energy. The second option is shifting to non-carbon energy sources, away from fossils. And the third set of options are to remove carbon from the fossil fuels and hydrocarbons, that means carbon separation, either prior to combustion or conversion, or post combustion. We already have technologies for that, for example separation of CO2 from energy gases, such as natural gas or synthesis gas, that could be generated from coal through steam reforming and a shift reaction resulting in production of hydrogen as a clean energy xcarrier. Another option is to remove carbon after electricity is produced from power plants.

In both cases you have to store carbon over geological times, for example in the deep underground saline aquifers or depleted oil and gas fields.

EN: What can you say for the future energy supply for developing countries such as India or China, where 2/3 of world’s population live?

NN: I would call the challenge facing China and India “leapfrogging challenge”, like when children jump over each other. Both will need to adopt most modern technologies, rather than repeat our development paths. So the type of technology I was talking about would be suitable also for China and India, but they will need large grids and networks to transport electric power in the order of 20 GW per year over the next decades. Infrastructure investment in large energy systems that would be based on clean fossils and renewables and nuclear – both fission and fusion – are the options for those countries as for the rest of the world.

IIASA is a non-governmental research organization and conducts inter-disciplinary scientific studies on environmental, economic, technological and social issues in the context of human dimensions of global change.

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EN: In your book “Global Energy Perspectives” *, you identify six alternative long-term energy issues, which all require substantial early investments. In your opinion which of these should be developed with most urgency to avoid the “wolf” arriving at the door?

NN: One of the urgent needs in the developing countries is – and I think we are not addressing this enough – to replace the traditional energy use like biomass, used in inefficient cooking stoves, by modern energy use, because this inhibits development and because women and children suffer from the resulting indoor air pollution. This usually doesn’t require enormous investments, but quite a lot of capacity building, education and experience. Many of the renewable technologies can help in a decentralized manner. At the global level, also in the industrialized countries, I think number one priority is to increase investment in both research and deployment of new technologies and infrastructures, and also in reliability and security of the energy system.

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EN: In the fable, the wolf finally did appear, but townspeople, assumed yet another false alarm and failed to respond to the real danger leaving the sheep to be devoured. How will your TNT case studies help technology to transform society to stay sensitive to warnings, while responding to the needs of the developing countries?

NN: Along these lines our interest in TNT is to get a slightly better grasp on both how much we can expect to increase widespread diffusion of new and advanced technologies in particular in developing countries, and also come to get to grips with the enormous uncertainty in technological change. We can’t predict which of the technologies will be successful. But the question is: how to cope with uncertainty? We need to make sure that we have sufficient investment in new technologies that some of them, if successful, will actually be able to diffuse.

Interview: D. Lutz-Lanzinger

* Global Energy Perspectives,
edited by
N. Nakićenović et. al., Cambridge University Press (1998)
Price: about $45.00
ISBN 0 521 64200 0 hardback
ISBN 0 521 64569 7 paperback