Since the discovery of fire a million years ago, the manipulation of earth’s natural resources has driven the course of human history. From coal and oil to solar and wind power, energy is one of the most consequential elements of human existence.
From the early 20th century, environmentalists, academics and politicians around the world have warned of limits to earth’s natural resources, arguing that humans will face significant energy shortage in the near future. In 1939, the U.S. Department of Interior estimated that American oil supply would only last another 13 years. The report came on the heels of the so-called end of oil panic that suggested rising use of cars, trains and ships would deplete supply. In 1949, the department released another worrisome statement saying, “The end of U.S. oil supply is in sight.”
Such arguments were later supported by many scholars, including the geologist M. King Hubbert, who in 1956 developed a theory that petroleum production follows a bell-shaped curve, hitting a peak before dropping off significantly. His theory suggested that U.S. oil production might reach its apex in the early 1970s and fall dramatically.
Although Hubbert was right about U.S. oil supply reaching its apogee in the ’70s, his assumption that it would lead to a resource shortage proved wrong. Technological developments helped humans harvest energy from more unconventional sources like shale gas embedded in rocks and power from the sun.
In Korea, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy estimates that the country’s electricity demand will drop to 101.9 gigawatts in 2030 from the current 113.2 gigawatts, largely from a fall in population due to a low birthrate, aging society and tapering demand from slow economic growth.
But it expects demand for renewable energy to rise, and the government has pledged to spend 760 billion won this year on researching growing energy sectors like renewables and smart grids. The investment is a 36 percent increase from last year. The goal is to develop technology that helps people produce and consume energy in smarter and more efficient ways.
“In the past, people just thought it was always best to produce as many goods as possible at lower prices, but that is no longer the case,” said Lee Min-hwa, chairman of the Korea Creative Research Network. “Individuals will want to have goods when they need them, and producing an excessive amount of goods that exceeds demand is a waste. When the fourth industrial revolution occurs, humans will reduce such waste, and electricity consumption and trade volume will drop significantly, or become more optimized.”
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