Energy and Resources

Science  25 Jul 1975:
Vol. 189, Issue 4199, pp. 255-260
DOI: 10.1126/science.189.4199.255


Two possible futures for the industrial world may be distinguished: (i) Large amounts of low-cost energy become available and the more energy-intensive methods for extracting resources from lowergrade deposits continue to sustain industrial expansion until either the environmental impact becomes unacceptable or ultimate limits, such as climate disruptions, put an end to such growth. (ii) The cost of nonrenewable energy resources continue to rise, but a fixed amount of energy from continuous sources may be utilized at constant cost. In this case a lower production level may be set by the amount of energy that is available from renewable sources, and society may thus have to be reshaped with energy economization in focus. If it is possible to choose between these two alternatives, the choice should be based on a discussion of the pros and cons of each one, and in particular on the desirability of having to process an increasing fraction of the earth's crust in search of raw materials in order to maintain growth as long as possible. However, the availability, of the first option is far from certain and it thus seems reasonable to plan for the second alternative.

I have tried to propose such a plan for a small, homogeneous geographical region, namely Denmark. The ceiling on the consumption of energy from continuous sources is chosen in accordance with the criterion of not having to convert a major part of the land area to energy-collecting systems. The proposed annual average energy consumption of 19 gigawatts by the year 2050 corresponds to solar energy collecting panels (in use only 50 percent of the time) with an area of roughly 180 square kilometers and a windmill swept area of about 150 square kilometers. These (vertical) areas constitute less than 1 percent of the total land area.

The selection of solar or wind energy for different applications has been based on known technology and may be subject to adjustments. The project has been shown to be economically feasible according to estimates of the cost of various alternatives during the 25-year depreciation period adopted. However, the initial cost per energy unit produced is higher than that for most of the alternatives, so that action is not expected to be taken immediately as a result of purely private initiative. In a public economic evaluation, other factors must be considered in addition to the cost of energy per kilowatt-hour. At present, Denmark has over 10 percent of its labor force out of employment and a substantial deficit on its balance of payments, so that an early start on the solar and wind energy project, based on national industry, would have additional payoffs compared with energy systems based on imported technology or imported fuels. Several factories that are now being closed down as a result of the economic crisis could be adapted to the production of parts for solar or wind power systems, and the building industry, badly hit by unemployment, would receive legitimate work.