The current international situation

The International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook says that the age of cheap oil is over.   If we begin to change now to more efficient use of oil and the development of alternatives, then there could be a smooth transition to future clean energy technologies.  On the other hand if governments do nothing, or little more than at present, then demand for oil will continue to increase, supply costs will rise, the economic burden of oil use will grow, vulnerability to supply disruptions will increase and the global environment will suffer serious damage.

The scenarios in the World Energy Outlook are the New Policies Scenario (NPS), which assumes that governments carry out the new policies and measures announced by countries around the world and the 450 Scenario which proposes a much faster transformation of the global energy system.   In the NPS, the average IEA crude oil price rises from just over $60 in 2009 to $113 per barrel in 2035, compared with $87 in the 450 Scenario or an increase to $140 if we continue with current policies. The 450 Scenario limits global warming gases in the atmosphere to a concentration of 450 parts per million C02 equivalent.  It envisages that there would be major changes in transport fuel.  By 2035 about 70% of global passenger car sales would be advanced vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars).  Not only would the proposals under the 450 scenario help to stabilize oil costs, but they would give a reasonable chance of meeting the overall goal of keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C.

The Outlook recommends that present Government subsidies for fossil fuels should be phased out.  These amounted to $312 billion in 2009.  However, government support for renewables can, in principle, be justified by the long-term economic, energy-security and environmental benefits they can bring.  The NPS projects that overall government support for renewables of $57billion in 2009 will rise to $205 billion in 2035. Gas, including unconventional sources, will have an increasing role.  The delays and uncertainties with the Copenhagen Accord have already increased the cost of keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C.  An extra $1 trillion investment will now be needed over the period 2010 and 2030, compared with the assessment in the previous year’s Outlook.

At the launch of the World Energy Outlook, Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency said “We need to use energy more efficiently and we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels by adopting technologies that have a much smaller carbon footprint”.  Mr Tanaka concluded that keeping the global temperature rise to a maximum of 2°C would require a phenomenal policy push by governments around the world. The technology exists today to enable such a change, but the required rate of technological transformation would be unprecedented.

What could fuel cells contribute?

Fuel cells are becoming more competitive and Government support, similar to that given to other energy saving and renewable technologies, would expedite their introduction and enable economies of scale to be achieved. The widespread use of fuel cells will make a major contribution to Government policies to ensure future energy security and cut global warming gases, as they have the following advantages: 

  • Electro-chemical energy conversion is quiet, with no emissions apart from water vapour
  • Modular construction.  Fuel cells can produce electricity on site thus minimising infrastructure costs and transmission losses
  • Highly reliable 24/7 operation
  • Cost competitive in volume production
  • Rapid deployment is possible
  • They will be powered by the low carbon fuels of the future
  • Hydrogen fuel cell systems act as load levellers for intermittent renewable energy on both a small and large scale
  • Up to 85% efficiency in CHP mode with natural gas, compared to 35% for the electricity grid
  • Exports to developing countries will enable them to utilize a variety of indigenous fuels
  • Fuel cells will be safer than nuclear power
  • High electricity to heat ratio is suitable for CHP units in future well insulated buildings
  • Successful urban vehicle demonstrations, with potential to compete with i.c. engine performance
  • Materials can be recycled.
  • Fuel cells generating energy on site will be less vulnerable to any future cybernet attacks.

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