Sustainable Energy Development

By Christie Law and Dr. Peter J. Catania
October 2003

Ms. Law is a undergraduate student from the Faculty of Engineering, University of Calgary, Canada. Dr. Catania is Professor of Engineering and the Chairman of International Energy Foundation (IEF) in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada.

The commercial, industrial and residential uses of fossil fuels have been and will continue to be an integral part of society over the foreseeable future. Primarily, the depleting resource and environmental limitations to specific energy demands must be tackled now for both present and upcoming generations. Yet, human needs and aspirations composed of multiple layers expose concerns over standards of living, global inequalities, and the political influences that have the potential to create equalized playing fields, leadership, and vision. The dependence on fossil fuels has been such that their environmental effects were largely ignored until the Bruntland Commission provided a definition of sustainable development. This concept is generating significant international interest and when combined with the technical, economic and human dimensions, sustainable energy development will continue the task of reversing or avoiding the tribulations that are associated with current practices. Sustainable development will assist in stimulating the growth and development of renewable forms of energy by maximizing their capabilities and energy capacities. The cooperation, coordination and communication among governments, industries, and society as a whole is an essential ingredient to sustainability. Ground breaking, energy-efficient and cost-effective renewable energy technologies combined with energy efficient lifestyles have made immense contributions to rapid advancements in both developed and developing nations. The past reference to energy specific industries such as the coal industry, the petroleum industry, and the nuclear industry has been irreversibly altered. The attitude and perception for energy supplies and demands within the future can be seen by now referring to these industries as energy industries- global, systems energy industries. Through this change, management in governments, energy industries, and society will result in sustainable development meeting significant energy demands of the public, while maintaining the assurance of a prosperous and environmentally acceptable economy. The development of renewable energy industries will forever alter the playing field. The train has moved out of the station and a new energy mix is beginning to take a firm hold in the international energy arena.


The creation of the first steam engines in the 1700s triggered a new progression of energy efficiency. Coal became the driving force in the 1890s, where it was used extensively to power steam engines. The later discovery of kerosene and gasoline extracted from the crude petroleum oil of Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided ideal fuel for lighting and transportation purposes. Combined with the internal combustion engine, petroleum eventually surpassed coal as the primary fuel resource. Energy systems had become an interaction between society and innovative technology, and ultimately, the dependence of energy sources such as fossil fuels to maintain these systems, also grew.

Currently, 86% of the energy consumed by human civilization is generated by oil, gas, and coal and continues to be the lifeline of the energy industry, accounting for 39% of the energy used worldwide (1). Although the world energy demand for coal has dropped from 74% in 1937 to 30% in 2002 (2), coal is still used extensively in both developing and developed countries. China and India, consumed 2065 million short tons of coal in 1996 with a projected 2485 million short tons in 2005 (2). Another popular fossil fuel, natural gas, because of its cleaner burning reputation has supplied the world with 20% (1) of its energy demands.

A Need for a Change

As the world´s population inevitably increases at an alarming rate, the demand for fossil fuel supply jointly escalates. The world has seen a doubling in population from 2.52 billion people in 1950 to 5.72 billion in 1995 with 79.5% of the population living in underdeveloped, poverty-stricken nations wherein energy is greatly needed and is not granted (2). Energy demand from China and India is a result of their 2 billion population in 1998 and the need for energy to feed their economic prosperity (3). Population worldwide, together with the rapid growth in economic terms has presented mankind with many disturbing questions involving resource usage, international relations, environmental impacts and health issues.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Hubbert Curve-Oil Depletion for World Oil Production (4)
(Note: The solid line shows actual oil production)

In a society so deeply dependent on irreplaceable resources such as fossil fuels, one must ponder over the possible implications made by their rapid decline. Hubbert (4) forecasted world oil would undoubtedly reach its maximum production in 2000 (Figure 1). This is consistent with present day trends in spite of the rapidly advances in petroleum and geological technologies. However, in these developed regions the majority of modes of transportation and a significant fraction of home heating and cooling are operated by fossil fuel power. As well, often overlooked, yet crucial everyday materials such as plastics are derived from petroleum hydrocarbons. Thus, fossil fuels are neatly interwoven into the heart of our society, and their disappearance will have an impact on our changing lifestyles.

International Relations

Figure 2
Figure 2: United States Petroleum Production and Imports: 1949-1999 (5)
(Note: Petroleum includes crude oil and natural gas plant liquids.)

As some regions will certainly run out of reserves faster than other regions, what will occur geo-politically, economically, and environmentally on various social scales? In the past, numerous conflicts have occurred due to the drive for fossil fuel control. Oil in particular, has caused the U.S. some turmoil. In the nineteen fifties the United States once produced over half of the world´s oil. However, only fifty years later, the U.S. has long surpassed its maximum production period, and is currently seeing a decline in its total oil supply. Figure 2 highlights the problem; energy consumption continues to increase while domestic production is unable to provide for national demands. As a result, there is an ever-increasing proportion of GDP being spent on foreign oil. Presently, the U.S. is mostly contingent upon oil from regions such as the Middle East (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3: Proven World Energy Reserves 1988 (6)

Oil is a global commodity, which implies that its price is determined by the international market. In the past, actions of unstable regions have created tension between countries. For example, OPEC took control of production in 1973 and played a major role in pricing exporting oil. The Arab Oil Embargo and the Iranian Revolution simulated a world oil crisis that created steep oil prices for non-OPEC countries and led them into a brief recession (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4: World Oil Prices Reflecting International Events: 1970-2000 (7)

In the 1980´s more oil basins were discovered and once again, supplies met world demands. Advances in technology also added in increasing the reserves. However, as observed in Figure 3, non-OPEC members have been dealt the shorter hand in oil supplies. At the moment, the U.S. uses over a quarter of the world´s oil, and imports around 11.1 MMBD of oil (Figure 5), which is 60% of the nation´s demand (9). In addition, an estimated one third of the USA $300 billion annual defence budget is spent on protecting the transport of oil from the Persian Gulf (10). The fact that these countries have been historically at odds with North America while they have supplied a large portion of our energy supply should be of concern to many individuals.

Figure 5
Figure 5: U.S. Crude Oil Imports by Source (8)

It is imperative that alternative sources take a firm hold in the international markets to reduce petroleum dependence in unstable regions and to avoid possible geopolitical discord. Simultaneously, one must enhance and strengthen the environmental impact of these bounded energy supply systems. However substantial the reasons for Desert Storm might have been, in the end 670,000 soldiers were placed under hostile conditions and $60 billion was expended (10). From this, a question arises. What would have been the result if these same financial resources were dedicated to the growth and development of renewable energy sources globally?

Environmental Impacts

A major problem with the use and production of today´s non-renewable resources is its detrimental impact on the environment through processes such as petroleum drilling, release of gaseous emissions into the atmosphere and oil spills. Oil tankers have spilled tons of oil in the past years, killing 100,000 birds and fish (1), and endangering many other organisms. The release of thermal pollution into lakes via industries has also killed many organisms. As water absorbs heat energy, it gains anywhere between 9-20 degrees Celsius , which in turn removes dissolved oxygen (11). In a chain reaction, photosynthetic rates of algae and bacterial growth escalate, thus eliminating more oxygen and depleting aquatic plants by their life source. In the end, the life expectancies of fish, insects and birds are drastically lowered. Furthermore, atmospheric emissions produced primarily by non-renewables cause large concern over acid rain, smog, and more controversial issues such as global warming and ozone depletion. The data in Figure 6 indicates a trend of increased CO2 emissions produced by fossil fuels wherein the Energy Information Agency predicted that total carbon dioxide emissions caused by fossil fuel resources will be roughly 275% greater in 2025 then it was in 1970. Precautionary measures are required by governments, industry and society as a whole. For example, Canada produced 13.8 tones per year of CO2 per capita in 1996, which is greater then China, Russia, Japan, India, and other countries (12). Although the effects CO2 are highly debated amongst many, the potential environmental risks involve must not be completely ignored.

Figure 6
Figure 6: World Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Fossil Fuel, 1970-2025 (14)

Similar to the CO2 trends, the world has seen an increase of NO2 emissions from the utilization of oil and coal. In the case of acid rain, the acids lower the pH of rain from a slightly acidic 5.6 (12) to a very acidic concentration. Eastern USA and Canada, as well as Eastern Europe are greatly affected by acid rain of pH 4.0-4.5, concentrations 10-40 times greater than normal rain (12). In addition, many historic buildings, bridges, and timeless landmarks, have been corroded by acidic rain. The heavy transportation and industrial sectors that use fossil fuels are the main contributor to this destructive problem. For example, the average Canadian car distributes 29.6 kilos of nitrogen oxide, 34.4 kilos of hydrocarbons, and 4,029 kilos of carbon dioxide annually (13). Besides creating acid rain, nitrogen oxide has also been known to react with organic compounds to produce ozone. The time has arrived for all members of society to commence with a cooperative and coordinated communication system wherein governments, industrial representatives, academia and society work diligently towards enhancing and strengthening the production and utilization of renewable energy systems.

Safety and Health

Albeit several environmental hypotheses are disregarded by some, there are growing trends tying human health to the use of fossil fuels that simply cannot be ignored. For example, the number of deaths caused by black lung disease in the United States has declined from a maximum of 2820 deaths in the 70s to 1478 deaths in 1994 (15). On the other hand, the unsightly smog, caused by the transportation and industrial sectors has also contributed to the growing number of asthma cases and lung disease. The United States has 32% of the world´s vehicles and from this, 30% of smog-forming particulates and 51% of the 33 most hazardous air pollutants are formed (10). These small particles irritate the lung tissues and often trigger asthma attacks. The Pew Environmental Health Commission estimated that between 1980 and 1994 asthma rates in children under the age of four increased by 160%. Within the same timeframe, child deaths caused by this disease rose by 78%. To treat this debilitating disease, the U.S. spent over $11 billion on asthma related cases in 2000 alone (10). This cost should be added to the externality costs of fossil fuels.

Figure 7
Figure 7: Total Consumption of Final Energy in the Three World Regions (16)

Unsurprisingly, the major problems from the use of today´s energy resources are magnified significantly in the developing world wherein rates of population increase have occurred in areas where power is either unaffordable or unavailable. Ironically, as seen in the projections from Figure 7, this means that the emerging nations will have a greater urgency for energy sources than the industrialized countries. The World Health Organization has declared poverty to be "the world´s deadliest disease." (2). People live in an existence without the ability to sanitize their water, obtain wholesome nutrition or access adequate healthcare, all of which require sufficient amounts of energy. OLADE has estimated that it would take some 25 to 70 years to eradicate poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean (17). As well, the people within these emerging nations undergo many hardships in devoting what little time and money they have into the low quality energy services that do exist. Use of traditional fuels in the emerging nations has been strongly linked to indoor pollution and various illnesses in women and children (18). For instance, in the province of Guizhou, China, the burning of coal in un-vented stoves and furnaces has created toxic metals and organic particulates within indoor space. Many have been diagnosed with severe arsenic poisoning and 10 million suffer from dental and skeletal fluorosis (18). As well, people of that region have a high probably of contracting esophageal and lung cancers because of these toxic elements. Since women and children traditionally spend more time at home compared to men and their counterparts in the industrial countries, they hold a greater probability of becoming ill. Other developing nations also experience similar problems. However, the western world is also affected by the energy use patterns in other regions. Atmospheric gases are not constrained to a particular area. Wind carries pollutants to other world vicinities which affects more people. For these health reasons and for ethical ones also, it is necessary for people to try to ease the suffering of others and to provide a better future for our future generations.

Due to the lack of appropriate levels of financial and technical aid from the industrialized nations, investments from developing countries to change the current status of emerging nations often go unnoticed or ignored. To this day, the use and practise of non-conventional energy sources are minimal in developed countries and are closed to nil in the poorer ones. Even disregarding all political, environmental, and health concerns, in the end a single physical fact about fossil fuel usage remains: coal, oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products are non-renewable, and although not immediately, they will eventually run out with current consumption rates. In view of this, a new development has been started in hopes of eradicating the predicament we as humans have created.

Creating a New Future

Sustainable development is a term that is vague and cannot be explained in a concrete way. Nonetheless, in social terms the Bruntland Commission stated that "Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future." (1). Initially, emphasis on materialism can be detected in this declaration and similarly within our society. Primarily, resource scarcity and environmental limitations to specific energy demands are factors that must be considered both now and for future generations. Yet, human needs and aspirations are broad terms composed of multiple layers which also expose concerns over standards of living, global inequalities and political turmoil. The benefits brought by conventional technology have been limited to a very narrow section of the human kind. To some, the modern industrial ideas have spawned an era of unethical social divisions within a consumerist community. Frequently used expressions such as „the Third World”, „underdeveloped versus developed nations”, and „poverty stricken regions” all clearly illustrate how the current use of energy has benefited only a few, while leaving the rest in hardship. With this in mind, alternative energy sources accompanied with societal alterations, has been looked upon to reverse or avoid present adverse situations, and to achieve a sustainable future. In brief, sustainable development is an ongoing interaction with technology advancement. Government and industrial willingness should actively seek, enhance and strengthen renewable energies and their respective market penetrations and become an active partner in how humans relate to these innovations technically, economically, and socially.

Technical Aspects

Firstly, unlike the current situation fossil fuels has put the world in, the promise of a sustainable future requires inexhaustible energy resources sufficient to meet increasing human demands. Environmental factors aside, this basic principle implies that knowledge of fuel reserves and resource availability are crucial to the practice of sustainability. Assuming that only a few decades are left in the life span of petroleum due to the present annual rate of consumption of 2 percent (19) in developed nations and substantively higher, due to population and economic prosperity in many emerging nations, reliance must be placed on alternatives. While the exact time period wherein fossil fuels will dominate is not clear, there is no doubt that they are presently on a downward slope. Renewable resources are composed of the natural elements and are everlasting in their supply of power. Yet, although endless in their power supply, the complication of our lifestyle combined with the lack of knowledge and experience has resulted in limited market penetration within our society. It is therefore necessary to devise energy efficient technologies to carry out intended tasks. There are many innovative systems that feed off of renewable resources.

In its raw form, solar radiation exists at the rate of 178 000 TW on the earth´s surface. This is approximately 20 000 times larger then the present world energy use of fossil fuels and uranium (20). If tapped efficiently and effectively, solar power carries promise for the progress of sustainable development. Photovoltaic cells are another breakthrough in the study of solar energy utilization, and bring great potential for sustainability. The efficiency of these cells will continue to improve, from 24% in the current labs of the United States to about 40% within the decade (21). Examples of the positive effects they bring to a sustainable future can be seen by the Fala Direct Marketing Project of Long Island, N.Y. As the largest commercially owned PV system in the United States, over the next 25 years this project will reduce the amount of fossil fuel used extensively, so that 20,000 tons of CO2, 30 tons of NOx, and 75 tons of SOx will not be released (22). The production of electricity is equivalent to the burning of 45,000 barrels of oil.

Hydrogen, the third most abundant element on earth, can be combined with other elements to form various compounds such as water and hydrocarbons. In most fuel cells, hydrogen is used to operate a highly efficient electrical-chemical process. These cells carry with them many benefits, such as reduced noise and air pollution. Furthermore, the thermal energy produced by fuel cells can be used to provide space and water heating. As a matter of fact, The U.S. Department of Energy proclaims that if only 10% of the vehicles in America were powered by fuel cells, atmospheric emissions would be decreased by one million tons per year and 60 million tons of CO2 would be abolished (23). As well, DOE hypothesized that this 10% of operational fuel cells in automobiles would cut U.S. oil imports by 13%, a total reduction of 800,000 barrels of oil per day. Evidently, new technologies that use effective resources will have a large influence in the way humans will live.

Economic Aspect

Figure 8
Figure 8: Cost of Electricity from Photovoltaics in the USA (25)

Once new and efficient ideas are created, technologies must be presented to the public in a pleasing manner. Consumers are not stubbornly closed to different ideas that may benefit the environment or their lifestyle, but are undoubtedly hesitant when economic risks are involved. New technologies placed on the market, may take anywhere between 10-25 years to be adopted into a U.S. household (24). However, this diffusion time may be drastically reduced if prices are decreased. Historical facts are presented in Figure 8 and these same data predict drastically decreasing costs of electricity produced by photovoltaic technology. Assuming this trend will continue, renewable technologies such as PV cells should be economically viable within the next decade (1). Despite obvious financial risks, entrepreneurs who venture forth with these innovations for environmental, ethical or economic reasons help further the movement of sustainability. The more consumers that support the need for change, the more acceptable non-conventional means become.

Figure 9
Figure 9: Total United States R&D Budget Authority, by Function: Fiscal Years 2000 (26)

Additionally, sustainable development needs more government funding towards Research and Development sectors, in hopes of improving present energy efficiencies. In 1998, the United States spent only 2% of its Federal Research and Development budget on energy progression (Figure 9). In contrast, Japan spent around 20% on energy development, which is highly noticeable within the efficient Japanese lifestyle. (Figure 10). Along the same lines, more money should be effectively placed in programs that educate the public about fossil fuel use, and create awareness of the possible alternatives. Using the U.S. and Japan as examples, one can observe differences in national prioritization. Only 5% of the government R&D budget was spent on advancement of knowledge in the States, compared to nearly 50% in Japan (Figure 10). As a result, Japan has been a world leader in the development of sustainable energy. If the rest of the world put more emphasis on these areas of R&D, perhaps conservation of fossil fuels will provide another decade of its use, and meanwhile new efficient, renewable technologies will gain popularity.

Figure 10
Figure 10: Government R&D Support, by Country and Selected Socio-economic Objective: 1997/1998 (27)

For these innovations to remain acceptable however, it is imperative that cooperation take place nationally, regionally, and globally when setting prices on energy resources. For instance, OPEC´s control on the majority of the world´s oil reserves surely made an impact on the public´s opinion of other sources. The dependence on oil has played a major factor in oil pricing. In fact, consumers tend to respond more positively to cheaper priced oil regardless of the environmental benefits alternatives may bring. Perhaps by setting international agreements on pricing which include all externality costs, the world market would favour the development of new forms of inexhaustible energies. This may give new technologies, such as fuel cells, a fair opportunity to compete in the economic market. Furthermore, unacceptable fees on energy requirements are often unaffordable to many in the underdeveloped nations, and thus have created inequity among the human race.

Human Aspect

To address the previous problem, countries around the world must not only agree on prices, but discuss and execute concrete plans for energy conservation and efficiency. The benefits of a sustainable future are a right for every human being, regardless of their race, stature, geographical position, gender, or even age. However difficult the process may be, nations must consult on how to meet a minimum specific energy demand from each country. Meeting energy needs would require careful planning, particularly in the issues of: (1) What energy form should be available? (2) How can that energy be extracted? (3) Where can that energy be processes, stored, and delivered to consumers? (4) When can new technologies be available to the general public? and (5) Who will supply the financial and technical aid to see the whole processes through?

In achieving the provisions embedded into each of the concepts above, the health and standard of living of people in different nations will be greatly improved. To further lessen the gap between the rich and the poor, developed regions also must take responsibility in making strategies that minimize or even to carefully limit energy expenditure. Using the guidelines above, industrialized countries should extend national research to base policies on the practice of their own community. After all, global conservation of energy is the key to making a more equable future. Since the environment is unquestionably connected to human interaction and vice versa, by ensuring a sustainable environment, the well being of humanity is also maintained. For instance, as pointed out earlier, many health defects and diseases are linked to present emissions. However, if advanced technologies and more practical methods were applied to reducing harmful discharges, less concern would be made over several health issues.

Taking all of these aspects into account, one may observe the technical, economic, and human components of Agenda 21. Created in 1992 by the World´s States in Rio de Janeiro, this inclusive action plan has outlined intended strategies of implementing the basics of a sustainable future (28). The key sections include (1) Social and Economic Dimensions, (2) Conservation and Management of Resources for Development, (3) Strengthening the Role of Major Groups and (4) Means of Implementation. Within these sections, Agenda 21 focuses on the transition of major stages, from the problems addressed, to possible solutions, and lastly the execution of these plans. The fundamental concept one must always consider when demanding change for sustainability, is transition. When dealing with the mindsets of people, drastic changes never come overnight. Despite the fact that through the years, various problems with the use of non-renewable resources have appeared, time between the gaining, accepting, and applying new ideas must be expected. Patience and great persistence is also essential for a sustainable future.


The utilization of energy is essential to the survival of human civilization. Evolving and current conventional energy practices have created a new era that has bestowed more efficient means of dealing with everyday life. Fossil fuels mainly, have been the underlying source behind providing the world with electrical power and economic progress. However, the substantial use of such a resource has also brought many problems to mankind. Past generations failed to predict how long hydrocarbon supplies would last and how much environmental, human, and economic tribulations would surface. Today, our world is faced with polluted air, water, and land, which have also contributed to health problems for many organisms, including humans. An undefined portion is due to in part to the escalating combustion of fossil fuels. In addition, the competition of obtaining the limited non-renewable resources has led to inequity amongst regions.

To reverse the adverse effects of energy use, sustainable energy development has been implemented. Although explained in many different ways, essentially this movement entails the development of new technologies and habits to promote a future that meets the current expectations of our society, and for generations to come. This concept involves many technical, economic, and social dimensions. As well, sustainability requires transition from old habits to new ones, conventional resources to current available ones, and also from inefficiency to effectiveness and conservation. Only through global cooperation, patience, and persistence, will the dependence of fossil fuels diminish and new futures and opportunities begin. The choice is ours. Leadership and vision are required by a systems approach through cooperation, coordination and communication among governments, industries, academia and society. In view of the significant lead times prior to achieving market penetration and thereby reducing capital cost, one must act with determination such that renewable energies will take a firm hold on the international goal of sustainable development.


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