The answer is yes. And powerboats, SUVs, helicopters, Formula One cars, planes and lots of other things we enjoy can all be sustainable too. They just need to use sustainable fuel.
There are lots of routes to sustainable fuel. The simplest but most dangerous is to make it from plants alone. Why? Because it takes lots of land to grow fuel, and we need that land for wildlife, and to grow food for people.
A better route is to use solar energy to make hydrogen, then use that hydrogen to make liquid fuels. I’ve included a page on a route to do that. On that page I reckon that methanol from the solar route would be 20% to 120% more costly to use than petrol in the UK in 2013. It would therefore be easily affordable for a jet ski, and for other leisure uses. In time, given technical advances, the cost of this fuel would be expected to fall.
The solar power would be best produced in deserts. There are lots of them on the planet – in North Africa, Australia, the Middle East, North America, Asia and Southern Africa. Ships could bring fuel from any of them, reducing the risks associated with dependency on one source of supply. See this earlier post for a view of whether the deserts can power us.
The picture shows a family outing to the seaside in 2050. Both the SUV and the jet ski use methanol fuel. The SUV can be away from civilisation for days if required. The jet ski too burns methanol, and is just as light and powerful as its 2015 versions were. Methanol fuel can be obtained from filling stations, which have converted to sustainable fuels to replace fossil fuel.
Why have I been banging on about battery electric cars and buses if this is true? Electric cars will be preferred for routine journeys like commuting and shorter journeys like shopping. They should be cheaper to operate than current fossil fuelled cars, and considerably cheaper than methanol fuelled vehicles. That is because battery vehicles can chose when to recharge, picking times when electricity supply is high and costs are low.
Battery vehicles will have adequate range for urban duties. They are pollution free, and may be mandated for urban use for that reason alone. Sustainable liquid fuels will therefore be reserved for those activities where battery vehicles cannot do the job.
Will methanol be used in internal combustion engines like those of 2015? Yes – very often. There will also be a new option to use fuel cells, which are quiet and efficient. Fuels like methanol (or hydrogen) are far easier for fuel cells than petrol or diesel.
The picture is on the North-West coast of Africa in 2050. Large ships are loading fuels for export across the world. In the distance smaller ships are loading specialist chemicals and bringing feedstock for processes.
Inland, across the 5000 kilometre wide Sahara desert, huge solar power stations are in action. Some use solar cells, others store heat and use it to make power for 24 hours a day, others generate hydrogen. Near the Atlantic coast, where access is available for large ships, industrial plants use that hydrogen and electricity. The output is chemicals of various types and transport fuels for cars, ships and planes.
Mauritania, which is on this coast, is now one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Its development from one of the world’s poorest countries was as sudden as the oil boom that transformed the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century. It boasts cities built by the best architects. Its citizens own the top soccer teams. Its population has grown as it has attracted people from across Africa and the brightest and best from across the planet.
The abundance of electricity has attracted other industries both to Mauritania and to its neighbours. Nigeria is now a top manufacturing country and has remained prosperous even though there is little demand for its oil.
This is not the only such industrial site in the world. There are others in Australia, the Southern USA, Mexico, Namibia, the Middle East, India and China.
The North African countries that face the Mediterranean also generate electricity and hydrogen but their prime market is direct sales to Europe. Half of Europe’s electricity supply comes from North Africa.
Why can’t this happen now? Fuels produced this way are more costly than fossil fuels. Opinions differ on when the cost of energy from renewable sources will fall far enough to make them competitive. My view is that renewables may be more costly than fossil fuels for many years. The cost of renewables is falling, but not quickly enough. There is more than enough fossil fuel available to destroy the planet.
Isn’t solar electricity becoming competitive now? Well I keep reading that it is, but I suspect that doesn’t include the costs of the kit required to turn an intermittent supply during the middle part of the day into a 24 hour supply wherever it is needed. I’d be very pleased to be proved wrong.
Can’t we increase the price of fossil fuels to deter their use? Taxes on fossil fuel, or charges on fuel producers will always be politically unpopular. They make fuel expensive. They leave the poor unable to heat their homes or travel to work while the rich can still afford tons of fossil fuel for their super-yachts.
The most important issue in bringing about a sustainable economy is to find an acceptable financial mechanism to drive it. The Qtax is one option. It directly measures the environmental degradation caused by each individual. It does not prevent the rich from owning super-yachts, but it punishes them financially if they use fossil fuels to build or propel them. The rich will therefore drive development of sustainable technologies.
Why make fuels? Won’t everything be electric in 2050? Many things will be electric, because it is efficient to use electricity directly, but liquid fuels like petrol are much more energy dense than even the best battery. Hydrogen gas is another potential fuel. It can be used directly as a fuel but it tends to work out heavier than a liquid fuel because of the heavy containers needed to store it. There are therefore many applications where range, weight and power requirements will dictate the use of a liquid fuel.
Why not make liquid fuels from plant materials? That is done at present but the amount that can be made is limited by the space available to grow plants and the fact that we need plants for food. In theory much more could be produced using solar power in deserts.
Is it possible to make liquid fuels this way? See Wikipedia for the state of development of these processes. The cost and efficiency of these conversion processes will be crucial factors in deciding whether they are widely used.
Isn’t it environmentally destructive to industrialise the desert? Yes, to an extent it is. Humans have to make judgements about which parts of the planet they want to sacrifice in the interests of protecting the remainder. The Qtax gives a mechanism to drive the least damaging forms of planetary degradation. Desert power production to meet all of the world’s energy requirements would use much less than half of the available desert, There will still be vast tracts left empty. See SEWTHA for details of how much energy can be produced in this way.
Is desert solar the obvious answer to all our problems? It looks very promising, and will probably be a big part of the future. There are however potential political questions that could affect the reliability of supply. The cost of this energy will be higher than fossil fuels, and if it is too high only the wealthy will be able to afford it. It is worth developing other energy options until those questions are answered.