Our Energy Future

Back in 2007 I vividly remember having a conversation with a fellow futurist about Peak Oil. As far as he was concerned, the oil price was going to keep going up and up and we were facing a global crisis. Only it didn’t and we faced a different kind of crisis. The global economy crashed and took the oil price with it, falling, if I remember rightly, from $147 a barrel to less than $50. I’ve not heard the expression Peak Oil since.

Peak oil, like most predictions, contains assumptions. It’s also impacted by other factors, notably the price of oil. The higher the price, the more oil there is, because there’s greater economic incentive to find more, to look for non-conventional reserves or to invest in alternatives such as solar or wind. In other words, there are feedback loops.

I’m told that in the 1700s there was Peak Wood in Britain. The demand for wood was skyrocketing due to rapid urbanisation and the clearance of woodland for agriculture. Wood was the main global fuel and the main building material too and it was becoming scarce. There was surface coal, and people knew about underground coal, but they couldn’t get their hands on it due to mine-shaft flooding.

But, as always, necessity was the mother of invention. The high-pressure steam pump was invented to solve the problem of draining deep mine-shafts and this invention kick-started the industrial revolution. So, in a sense, we’ve been wherever we are before.

Right now we don’t have an energy crisis globally. What we have is an energy storage problem. We need reliability of supply ahead of both affordability and low carbon, although all three are vitally important.We face imbalances between supply and demand, especially with growing populations, urbanisation and the impacts of climate change and regulation, but human energy is addressing this. Battery technology in particular is improving, although this only solves part of the problem.

The decentralisation of energy and the development of smart energy grids – along with smart buildings and intelligent appliances – is the larger part of the solution in my view, although we shouldn’t forget that energy anarchy could be a step away from energy democratisation.

At the moment the grid, our cities, our buildings and our appliances are not very intelligent. And neither are we. Power generally comes from centralised generators and we plug in or switch off our devices wily-nilly and then complain about the size of our energy bill.

But imagine if everything that used power were given a level of intelligence and autonomy. Imagine if devices, dwellings and local energy eco-systems could instantly switch energy provider. And what if these devices and micro-grids could trade with each other, selling any excess energy they had or deferring – or time-shifting – their use of power in return for micro-payments.

So instead of devices being ‘on’ or ‘off’ they would decide for themselves the optimum time to be switched on or recharged. They might have a conversation with us about this or, more likely, they would talk among themselves and collectively agree how best to use the power that’s currently available on a national, local or hyper-local basis.

Your washing machine, for example, might shift being on by 10 or 20 minutes or it might decide buy electricity from your neighbour’s electric car. And perhaps Google will facilitate this, becoming an energy trader and provider connecting everything that’s connected for optimum efficiency. Google might even offer free energy in return for data.

This could all work seamlessly, especially if we harness the power of AI and machine learning, but it has the potential to dissolve into disaster too if control is too tight or too loose or we create a system that can be hacked. A single domestic air-conditioning unit linked to the internet can be hacked to cause a surge, thus knocking out the power of a whole neighbourhood.

Electric cars, btw, are interesting in the context of smart things, but they are a long way from being a game changer in terms of fossil fuel dependence.

There are currently around 2 million electric cars globally. The forecast is 100 million by 2035, but even this number would only reduce demand for oil by 1 ½ million barrels of oil per day. Global oil demand is currently 95 million barrels a day.

Even if we get 100 million electric cars by 2040 this pales into insignificance compared to the 1 billion conventionally powered cars we currently have or the 2 billion forecast by 2040. Regulation may change these numbers, especially in China, but don’t count on it.

Nevertheless, electric and especially autonomous electric vehicles do deliver one thing that’s potentially rather interesting. If you have millions if not billions of electric vehicles buzzing around you effectively have one giant battery. And it’s a battery that’s highly mobile, locally owned and potentially the beginnings of a system where ordinary people are able to store power and sell it to each other.

If you add in nudge pricing (energy tariffs that vary by season, by real-time demand or by end use – or offer financial incentives to people not to use power at a certain time) we could end up with an era of energy abundance rather than scarcity.

But don’t for a minute think that such a system will run primarily on renewables. In my view fossil fuels will continue to dominate out to at least 2030, maybe 2035. Unfortunately, renewables sources of energy don’t scale well and history suggests that energy transitions (the time it takes to switch from one primary energy source to another) takes many decades.

Over the much longer term, beyond 2040 say, I think we have a slightly different power problem, namely will power. We can easily solve all current and future energy problems if we act together and think boldly enough.

For example, it’s been said that if 0.3% of the Sahara was covered with solar panels, Europe could be powered indefinitely. Raise this figure to 1% and you could power the entire world. And that’s with existing solar technology, never mind hyper-efficient nano-solar that might work with moonlight or within clear glass panels. Imagine if every window in the world was a solar power panel?

Looking out of my plane window on the way to Australia recently it was clear that Australia has an lot of land and quite a bit of sun, so why isn’t there mega-solar downunder?

But that’s just one option. We can get more inventive than this.

We can grow bio-fuels using algae. We can harvest micro-energy from human footsteps, from body heat or from the waste energy emitted from our homes. We can collect wind inside tunnels using tiny electric ‘ribbons’, harvest wind alongside roads using plastic blades of grass that are actually tiny wind turbines or even harvest wind in the deep oceans.

We might even be able to collect wind high above the earth using giant kites (or airships) or collect solar energy in space using mirrors and send it back to earth using lasers or microwaves.

Implausible, but not impossible.

Over the short-term things could get bumpy due to conflicting political and commercial interests, and I do see a shift away from coal, but I don’t see coal disappearing entirely and neither do I see gas or oil going away anytime soon. Known reserves of oil are enough to meet global demand out to 2030 twice over and the development of alternatives could effectively increase reserves. As for nuclear, by 2040 there’s a vague change of Fusion Power, which would be another game-changer.

In short, I see a world where energy sources become more diverse, more local, more transparent and more democratic. An energy future that hopefully shifts away from central to local control and away from some of the world’s more unpleasant regimes too, although the destabilisation of these energy autocracies could create a different set of problems.

But, of course, I could be wrong.

The only thing we know with absolute certainty about the future is that it’s uncertain. Extrapolating recent experience or events forward in a singular, logical, linear manner is usually how we get ourselves into trouble. So, we need to think. And then think again.

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