«With regard to the global energy future, there is no such a thing, like a silver bullet»
Professor Konstantinos Boulouchos, Energy Science Center, ETH Zurich, about the future of transportation, the look of cars and fuel efficiency.
Professor Boulouchos, what is the Energy Science Center in Zurich?
The Energy Science Center is a network, which links together the competencies of around 40 research groups at ETH in Energy. In addition to research and services to industry and society, it also coordinates the new interdisciplinary Master of Science in Energy.
Is it true that the lack of fossil fuels will not be the biggest problem in the near future but the CO2 2-emissions caused by the use of fossil fuels and their effect on the climate?
Security of supply of fossil fuels at a reasonable cost will certainly be an important issue in the next decades. The impact of fossil fuels through CO2-emissions to the atmosphere and the associated climate change are however the bigger challenge, as they require immediate, disciplined and coherent action on a global scale.
Currently many efforts are on their way to improve fuel efficiency in cars (hybrid motors, lean engines). Your research group won the Engine-In-Society award of Euromot. What can we look forward to in the near future?
We are going to experience a variety of technologies that aim at zero-local-pollutant-emissions and a radical decrease in CO2-emissions. In addition to evolutionary improvements in combustion engines and some limited substitution of oil through biofuels, the dominant technology path over the next decades will be the increasing electrification of automotive powertrains.
What about hydrogen cars? There is lots of talk about them.
Yes there is a lot of talk and there has been a lot of serious effort and technological progress during the last 10 years. If one however takes a thorough look at the efficiency of the whole energy conversion chain, it becomes quite obvious that the hydrogen economy requires vast amounts of primary energy. This together with the enormous costs for building-up a totally new fuel production, storage and distribution infrastructure puts this approach in a clear disadvantage against the direct electrification of automotive powertrains.
Should not more radical steps be taken like a complete concept change in how cars should look in the future? Sitting side by side in a 2 ton car is neither very aerodynamic nor economical.
This is correct. Cars can be made lighter and their overall design targeted to their effective usage. Don’t forget nevertheless the emotional content of buying decisions for cars as for all other consumer goods. This is the major reason why common sense is often not reflected in customer preferences and it is in contrast to the behavior of buyers of investment goods (like trucks or ships).
Which energy system can solve the problems of the future and what steps have to be taken?
With regard to the global energy future, there is no such a thing, like a silver bullet. We anticipate that there will be a variety of primary energy sources, to cover worldwide energy demand. For several decades clean fossil fuels usage (incl. capture and sequestration of CO2), nuclear energy and increasingly renewable energy carriers will all constitute parts of a broader mix. The ultimate hope is of course, that around the end of the century renewable energies are going to dominate the global energy system. But there is a long way to go in this direction, since energy carrier substitution takes several decades, because of correspondingly long infrastructure reinvestment cycles. It can therefore not be stressed enough, that the most efficient strategy in the short- to mid-term is a radical increase in energy efficiency along the process chain from primary to useful energy.
At one stage everybody was talking about the 2000 watt society. Now the target is the 1 ton CO2 society. What's the difference?
The two targets are not in principle contradicting each other in any way. It is clear, that the ambitious goal of the 1-t-CO2-per-cap-society cannot be reached, without increased energy efficiency. What we say, is that priority has to be given to a quantitative target for CO2, while the exact amount of the associated primary energy per capita is somewhat less important. But for the next 20 years at least, one has to take the same path for both directions.
Just to be sure, you are saying that the emissions are the actual problem not so much the growing demand for energy?
No, both problems are extremely important. The difference is that an equilibrium between supply and demand for energy sources can be established anytime, though this will probably happen in the future at higher energy unit price levels, which may have some severe adverse consequences. On the other hand, CO2-emissions do not have an adequate price tag so far and if not drastic measures are taken fast enough, the extremal (climate change) costs will lead to severely suboptimal solutions.
The big fear in western countries is to lose luxury and comfort, if one has to cut energy costs. How dire will these consequences be to reach the 1-ton-CO2-goal?
The solution is to use intelligence, technology and policy for covering the energy services and advanced society needs, with a minimal energy input and waste output of all kinds. We are confident, that this can be done on a national and global scale within that century if consistent and informed action is taken with the adequate sense of urgency. However, major technology breakthroughs will be necessary to that end.
Everybody has become used to the idea that a flight from Zurich to New York City only costs couple of hundred Euros. Will this still be possible in the next decade?
Well, prices will go up somewhat for sure; but severe restrictions on air-travel possibilities will not appear. After all the climate change challenge has various origins and the contribution of air travel, though quite visible, is currently no more than 2-3% of the total manmade climate effect.
What are the energy alternatives in air travel?
Not many, indeed; teleconferencing is an option and CO2-tags will help. But increasing wealth, trade and communication will continue to be strong drivers in air travel. We are going to see efficiency gains and some contributions from biofuels, but long-range ship and air transportation will be the last sectors, where liquid hydrocarbons will survive.
What can we look forward to hearing from you at the European Futurists Conference Lucerne?
I hope that I will be able to convey the message that:
a) We face serious problems, with clear priority
b) There are solutions to the problems, some better than others
c) To bring these solutions about, it will take more than 50 years and require consistent and informed action, global policy and huge progress based on research and development.
Prof. Dr. Konstantinos Boulouchos has a diploma in mechanical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens and a doctoral degree from the Swiss Federal institute of Technology (ETH). He is professor at the Institute of energy Technology of ETH Zürich, and he is currently the Chairman of the Board of the energy Science Center ETH.
Prof. Dr. Konstantinos Boulouchos
Keynote «Our Energy Future(s)»,
Culture and Convention Centre KKL, Lucerne, Switzerland
October 27, 2008; 16.45 h