Coal plant in Alma, Wisc.

Will the energy future look like the present; in this case, a coal plant in Alma, Wisconsin? Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

The federal government’s latest international energy projections are out, and there’s no question we’re living in a time of enormous change—and perhaps remarkably little progress.

The International Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration tries to identify the big trends and projections affecting the energy world through 2040. Some of the trends include:

  • The world is getting hungrier and hungrier for energy, but that’s mostly about China, India and the rest of the developing world. Energy consumption in countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (basically the industrialized world) is expected to go up 17 percent by 2040. Consumption in countries outside the OECD is projected to nearly double. (See related interactive map: The Global Electricity Mix.)
  • Renewable energy and nuclear power are projected to be the fastest-growing energy sources, increasing by 2.5 percent per year. Thanks to new sources opened by fracking, natural gas is projected to be the fastest-growing of the fossil fuels, and by 2040 half of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. will be shale gas.
  • Because of improving technology, the world will continue to get more efficient in energy use, and that will have an impact on greenhouse gases.

Yet for all that, the EIA projects the world’s overall energy mix won’t change much at all by 2040.

EIA_fossilfuels_072813_442Yes, renewables and nuclear are the fastest-growing sources. But overall, the percent of energy produced by fossil fuels will only drop from 84 percent today to 78 percent in 2040. Renewables only grow from 11 percent to 15 percent, and nuclear rises from 5 percent to 7 percent. Liquid fuels drop by 6 percent, largely because of rising prices. And despite all the debate about the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, the overall percentage of those two fuels barely changes at all. Given that picture, we still be pumping out plenty of greenhouse gases. EIA is predicting a 46 percent increase in global warming emissions during the study’s time frame.

There are important differences in what’s happening in developed nations versus emerging ones. For example, even though the EIA is projecting a small 1 percent drop in the share of coal used by 2040, it expects a dramatic increase in coal consumption between now and 2020, most of it coming from the developing countries that need cheap forms of energy to house and feed their growing populations and to industrialize.

Projections aren’t karmic. They depend on taking current trends and best estimates of what will happen if those trends continue. But it’s a fair question: if there’s so much activity around new energy sources, then why don’t the projections look different? Why don’t the changes have more traction?

The answer may lie in the fact that we haven’t, globally speaking, really reached consensus on the fundamentals: What kind of energy sources should we be using? What economic changes are we willing to make to back up those choices?  What are developed nations willing to do to help poorer countries improve their citizens’ lives without depending so heavily on fossil fuels? Those of us living in the developed world have already reaped the benefits of industrialization based on cheap coal. It’s not surprising that developing nations would be tempted to follow the same path—and harder for us to preach to nations that are still building their economies. (See related story: “Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.”)

The fact is that the changes we’re making on energy are working on the margins, and that’s why the long-term projections only show marginal shifts. If you want big shifts, you have to start making big changes—and that means persuading the public that those changes are worth making. (See related story: “Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.”)


  1. Keyto Clearskies
    August 27, 2013, 9:10 am

    Most Ludicrous Scamvention: Mark Goldes’ “POWERGENIE”

    One of the most laughable of Mark Goldes’ many invention scams is his “POWERGENIE” sound-powered generator. The brilliant idea of this revolutionary breakthrough is to blow a horn at a magnetized tuning rod, designed to resonate at the frequency of the horn, and then collect the electromotive energy produced by the vibrations of the rod.

    I’m not making this up.

    POWERGENIE tuning rod engine explained – from the patent:

    [The device incorporates] “an energy transfer and multiplier element being constructed of a ferromagnetic substance possessing magnetostrictive characteristics, magnetoelastic characteristics,or both; and having a natural resonance, due to a physical structure whose dimensions are directly proportional to the wavelength of the resonance frequency…”

    “In this resonant condition, the rod material functions as a tuned waveguide, or longitudinal resonator, for acoustic energy.”

    “Ferrite rod 800 is driven to acoustic resonance at the second harmonic of its fundamental resonant frequency by acoustic horn 811, resulting in acoustic wave 816 within the rod having two nodal points. Each nodal point exhibits instantaneous acoustic pressure opposite the other nodal point. Bias magnet 801 produces magnetic flux 802 extending axially through both nodal points developed within rod 800. Since both nodal points within the rod develop oppositely signed instantaneous acoustic pressure, the electromotive force developed via the magnetoelastic effect at each nodal point is oppositely directed. Coils 820 and 821 are wound oppositely and connected in electrical series, such that their developed electromotive forces add. The sum electromotive force of coils 820 and 821 develops electrical current and power in resistive load 830.”

    – But the patent doesn’t tell us who is going to volunteer blow the horn at the rod all day. Perhaps it will come with an elephant.

    Goldes claimed in 2008 that this wonderful triumph of human genius would bring his company, Magnetic Power Inc, one billion dollars in annual revenue by 2012. Magnetic Power Inc is now defunct, having never produced any “Magnetic Power Modules” – just as his company called “Room Temperature Superconductors Inc” is also now defunct, having never produced any “room temperature superconductors.”

  2. Ner Escuadro
    August 17, 2013, 12:06 pm

    Fossil fuels should be phase out in the next 10 years or so. Technology had advance so much that using the same fossil fuel to fire our life as we used to have in the last 100 years or so is unthinkable. The technology for renewable energy resources, ie, solar and water based hydrogen fuel, are already developed, though not yet propagated. Why not concentrate our future to these two unlimited green energy sources?

  3. Scientifically Challenged
    Solar system 1
    August 13, 2013, 7:50 am

    The thing about predictions is well they’re only as good as your memory when the time capsule is opened.

  4. morgancadle
    lantana florida
    August 12, 2013, 11:10 am

    it’s ridiculous to rely on fossil fuels why not explore other energy that include fusion

    why cant you create a system much like that shaped in a peace sign- you have 2 tubes at 45 degrees angle that meet in these tubes you create funnel of electromagnetic like tornadoes you each with opposing electromagnetic charges so if it fails the charges nullify each other shutting it down-you super cool the tubes -then you fire atoms at the same speed down the funnels this increases the speed of each atoms when they collide as they reach the bottom of the funnels you have magnetic s that increase the level of fusion and the speed of the collision combined withe the increased densities at the bottom of each funnel increase the fusion and produce more energy this energy is then pushed out through a a pyramid shape at the bottom with all angles 45 degrees as well – the reason for the exact angles is the reflection of the force and energy as it is pushed out -this technique would create a lot more energy that can be used to power cities more efficiently and cut the costs of energy it can also be used for space travel
    if you use this technique combined with creating a funnel around the ship this can be done by putting a rotating disc at the rear of the ship this produces a funnel that pulls out molecules creating a vacuum for the ship to fly through as it is invisible you could use light rays to flow down the funnel so you can see it -combine the power of the fusion while flying through a vacuum you would travel at much faster speeds making space travel easier while using less fuel -you could devise a system where the ship draws in atoms from the environment it is moving through so you would not even need to carry fuel apart from for emergencies
    just an idea

  5. Anthony Ricigliano
    New York
    August 9, 2013, 4:20 pm

    Interesting find on our use of fossil fuels in the future.

  6. Konstantin Bachkov
    August 6, 2013, 12:07 pm

    Why must use fossil fuels…?
    For now the only way is nuclear power stations until someone don`t create other type fuel! I think that fuel(still doesn`t have name!)is a vehicle who create more energy than consume(ofcourse anybody can correct me!),after I create it will change it on a large scale and I will create mobile power station!For mobile power station I will need only from round road and my vehicle after that anybody will start to create electricity!
    To start do that I need only money which I don`t have…. for more questions

  7. Roger Streit
    New Jersey
    August 4, 2013, 12:33 pm

    Given these projections, we must do more than make marginal shifts in the amount of renewable energy, or we are all cooked. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels will adversely affect many aspects of our lives.

    Our government needs to enact a market-based carbon tax with dividend in order to curtail damage from our carbon output. The legislation is not complicated: A tax is placed on carbon-based fuels at the source. The tax will increase yearly. The money is returned to American families making the carbon fee revenue neutral.
    Most economists agree that a carbon tax is a suitable solution, creating incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The tax will send a market signal to entrepreneurs and investors, creating clean energy jobs. It will gradually shift consumer demand, production methods, new investment, and technology development towards less emissions-intensive goods and services.

    One grassroots, nonpartisan organization, Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), is building the political will for the solution Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can embrace. To learn more go to

    When our government lags behind the scientists and economists, we need to let our individual members of Congress know that we expect them to act responsibly. My representative is Rodney Frelinghuysen. Do you know who your member of Congress is?

    A video of CCL’s conference in Washington, DC. shows how preparation and lobbying can make a difference

  8. Mark Goldes
    Sebastopol, CA
    August 3, 2013, 2:24 pm

    Providing hope for rapid reduction in the need for fossil fuels is a surprising invention, an engine that needs no fuel.

    See NO FUEL ENGINE on the AESOP Institute website. It opens a door to a perpetual commotion – that just might be the missing key to a bold and effective program to combat climate change.

    These engines will be powered by atmospheric heat, a form of solar energy, first suggested as a possibility by Jacob Wainwright in 1903. His papers are linked to a free download from google on the AESOP Institute website.

    Imagine what our history might have been like if he was taken seriously!

    Since these engines have no combustion, they run cool. Clear plastic piston engines sitting on your desk and generating power to run a radio will be difficult to deny.

    They can be scaled to power homes, replace diesel generators, and probably to provide an on-board recharge for electric cars.

    How about that!

  9. gary
    August 1, 2013, 7:34 pm

    I disagree with the last paragraph. The large majority of the public in most developed nations is already persuaded that a big change towards renewable energy is needed. The roadblock facing these changes is the oil and gas companies control over the lawmaking process in America and most industrialized nations.

  10. A Parker
    Philadelphia PA
    August 1, 2013, 5:38 pm

    Sobering predictions by the EIA, but I certainly wouldn’t bet my future Social Security payouts on their accuracy. There is tremendous research taking place right now on grid-scale renewable energy storage that would chop the legs out from under coal; the figures also seem not to address the likely growing impact of distributed renewables — more people gravitating toward home solar and other clean ways to loosen their dependence on “the grid.”

    Also, the 2045 prediction for nuclear (7%) appears laughably low. It’s well known that China has strong nuclear ambitions, including perfection of meltdown-proof liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology first developed, then abandoned, by the United States. Once they perfect it, you know they will mass produce it and export it for a profit.

    I could go on about the breakthrough technologies likely to upend the fossil-dominated energy chess board — if not in the next five years, definitely within the next two decades.

    Developing countries have an opportunity to leapfrog several generations of dirty, deadly energy technologies that the developed world has already proven quite undesirable.