It begins with energy

So said President Barack Obama in his pre-budget speech on Tuesday night as he unveiled the core elements of the budget that he will present in the coming days.

Then came the real content:

We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. . . . . .  we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years. We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history . . . . . . . But to truly transform our economy, protect our security and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power, advanced biofuels, clean coal and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.

On the day of Pearl Harbour, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto is now quoted as having said “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Whether he did or not is beside the point – but the sentiment is perhaps the same as that now seen within the new US administration. Don’t think for a minute that these issues will drop off the agenda or that the financial crisis will somehow deflect polictical attention away from energy and climate change.

But equally, don’t underestimate the job that must be done. On the one hand it is vast in scale, but on the other simple in terms of the actions that must be taken. There are only four areas on which to focus – energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. Alternatively, looking at it from a sectoral perspective it is power generation, industry, transport and buildings/commerce. To quantify the scale it is useful to visualise it, first graphically, then pictorially.

Graphically it looks something like this:

The US energy transformation through to 2050

The US energy transformation through to 2050

In this graph the position of each bubble represents progress up the energy ladder (as a highly developed economy the direct energy-GDP link has largely ended, as US per capita GDP continues to rise without a great need for additonal per capita energy). The slope of the line between a bubble and zero represents efficiency and it can be seen that the efficiency of the US economy has been gradually improving over the last three decades. The size of each bubble represents the type of energy being used, so the bigger the bubble the more CO2 intense the energy source.  From 1971 to 1990 the bubble shrank a little as nuclear and natural gas became significant parts of the energy mix, but that trend has stopped. Looking forward to 2025 and 2050, the change is significant compared to the last thirty years.

Pictorially it might look like this (run the slide show – full screen is best):