The Future of Energy

The future of energy is likely to look more like the past: a gradually evolving mix of energy sources that don't transform suddenly overnight, but instead evolve as new sources of energy prove themselves for new uses. That will be exciting as we expand the power and capabilities of our cars, phones, and the other gadgets that power our lives. And it might not even be the end of the world.

Matthew Boulton, of the 18th-century engineering firm Boulton & Watt, once boasted of his company's steam engines, "I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have: power." He and James Watt had demonstrated the ultimate meaning of Francis Bacon's famous dictum "Knowledge is power." Watt's knowledge of the science of energy made it possible to create a transformative new source of power.

What is the new knowledge that is likely to create new sources or supplies of energy in the future?

There is no shortage of intriguing suggestions. Take tidal power. The Earth is circled by a giant generator called the Moon, which is constantly moving the oceans up and down as it passes. There is certainly an enormous amount of energy there, if we can harness it, and there have been a few successful experiments.

Or consider reverse osmosis: a process that uses the chemical difference between saltwater and freshwater to generate energy, which has also been the subject of relatively small-scale experiments.

There are even schemes for vast solar arrays in space, with the energy converted to microwave radiation and beamed back down to Earth, a technology that recently had a successful test.

With each of these proposals, you may notice that there's a catch. There's a long distance from a theoretical breakthrough to a technology with predictable costs that justifies enormous investments in new energy infrastructure. With tidal power and reverse osmosis, for example, there have been demonstration projects, but on a scale of kilowatts and megawatts in a world where energy is consumed by the gigawatt. As for space-based solar, consider the enormous costs of sending equipment into space and maintaining it. (Hint: What is the most expensive structure ever built? The International Space Station.) Moreover, a lot of these new ideas are geographically limited, dependent on proximity to a location that provides the right conditions. That is what has limited an older, well-established form of alternative energy, geothermal. It's great for Iceland, not so much for Kansas.

All of these issues are summed up in the fastest emerging of the new energy technologies: solar power. "Renewable energy" like wind and solar is still used on a relatively small scale. Wind is 3.7 percent of global electricity generation, solar 1.3 percent. (By far the biggest "renewable" source is the oldest and most established: hydroelectric, at 16.6 percent.)

While the potential of solar power generates a lot of excitement, it is also prone to applications that are more symbolic than practical. Take Elon Musk's latest announcement about attractive-looking solar roof tiles, which was silent on one big issue. How much do they cost? Pro-tip: When somebody launches a big new product and doesn't tell you how much it will cost, the answer to that question is not going to good.

The ultimate example of this is car-top solar panels, which sound great but are meaningless in practical terms.

Yet solar power actually is growing in practicality. Over time, the cost of panels has been declining while their power yield has increased. There is a kind of Moore's Law for solar, in which "the cost of solar power drops by about 20 percent with every doubling of installations." Trends tend to continue until they don't, so the improved economics of solar power is not inevitable. But still, a projection of actual current trends into the future is a lot better than mere speculation.

That's not the real challenge, though. The big obstacle to wind and solar is energy storage. There has been a lot of breathless news recently about new installed capacity of these power sources outpacing new fossil fuel capacity. The catch is that term "capacity." Wind and solar installations operate at a fraction of their total capacity because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. And because their source of power is variable, they require traditional backup generation capacity to fill in when they can't meet demand.

That's why a lot of the hope for making solar energy more practical rests on advances in battery technology. Tesla, for example, is already building a giant battery storage facility for Los Angeles. Again, this depends on a projection into the future of current trends: The cost of batteries has been decreasing while their "energy density"—the amount of power you can store in a given weight of battery—has been increasing.

There are three basic issues with battery storage: energy density, recharge times, and the total battery life cycle. Energy density and recharge times are the biggest issues keeping electric cars from being competitive with the internal combustion engine. Batteries have one-tenth the energy density of gasoline and take hours to charge, while you can refill a gas tank in a few minutes and be on your way. Then there is the life cycle. If you are reading this, you almost certainly use at least one device with a lithium-ion battery, and you are very familiar with its decreasing ability to hold a charge after repeated use, so that a cellphone battery that used to last most of the day is suddenly in constant danger of running low.

There are several radical new battery technologies that address these issues. New metal-air batteries might be able to carry an energy density as a high as gasoline. New graphene supercapacitors might be able to charge in much shorter times and can be charged again and again indefinitely. Theoretically.

There's the rub, and it's an issue that we see again and again with emerging future energy sources: There's always a breakthrough that we're still on the other side of. Based on past experience, we can assume that eventually some of these breakthroughs will arrive. But we don't know which ones and, crucially, we don't know how long it's going to take or how much it's going to cost.

The signature example is fusion power. Recently, there has been a lot of ferment and interesting hints that we might finally crack the problem. Then again, the old saying about fusion is that it's 15 years away and always will be. Enthusiasts have been predicting its imminent development as a practical, functioning technology for more than 50 years.

The problem with future technology is that it's in the future. It requires technological breakthroughs that haven't happened yet. For industrial-scale power generation, the kind that can support a First World lifestyle, that's a big problem, because to replace existing systems requires construction on a vast scale and investments of trillions of dollars.

Energy transitions take a very long time. The transitions from wood to coal, or from coal to oil and natural gas took many decades. So we see the persistence of a varied mix of energy, with coal subsisting as a major source alongside newer competitors. It disappears in some uses (the diesel-electric locomotive replacing the coal-powered steam engine) but persists in areas where it is still competitive (steel mills and power plants).

We're going to see the same thing for solar power and batteries. They are going to win out in specific applications, such as autonomous robots and drones, which are currently too underpowered when they run on batteries, but too noisy or unsafe to run on an internal combustion engine. So batteries are going to make a lot of very interesting new things possible, from drone delivery to robot servants. But it will be a long time, if ever, before they are competitive for larger-scale power storage.

In fact, the biggest challenge to future innovation in alternative energy is future innovation in fossil fuels.

The biggest real technological breakthrough in energy in the past few decades is undoubtedly hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has tapped into vast new reserves of oil and natural gas hidden in shale deposits. And that revolution is not finished. A recent decrease in oil prices shut down a lot of fracking rigs, but frackers have continued to find less expensive ways to operate, or ways to get a lot more oil and gas out of the same well. This raises the prospect of a permanent decrease in fossil fuel prices, driven by new technology.

The impact of fracking can be seen already in a huge shift away from coal to natural gas as fracking and other innovations have made it a low-cost fuel. Natural gas has also been favored for political reasons because it produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions.

That bring us to the elephant in the room when we talk about the future of energy. Changes in the energy mix normally happen incrementally over long periods. But claims of catastrophic man-made global warming imply that we don't have time to wait. It's the reason we're told that the future of energy has to come now, which raises the risk of massive malinvestments that could end up achieving dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions the only way that has really been demonstrated to work: crashing the economy.

Yet it may be time to accept that this zero-emissions future isn't going to happen. A few years back, Google cancelled its alternative energy "moonshot" because it projected that the cost of rebuilding the entire world's energy infrastructure would be too great, and that it would come too late to make a significant difference on projected global temperatures. Two of the Google engineers explained in detail why existing technology won't do the job, and they drew this conclusion:

"As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today's renewable energy technologies simply won't work; we need a fundamentally different approach."

Their "new approach" is to seek a radical new energy technology that would be so much better, cheaper, and more reliable that it is "truly disruptive." The only problem is that nobody knows what that would be. So we're back to waiting on a massive new breakthrough that might not arrive.

Does that mean we're doomed? Well, that depends on how certain we are of the projections about global warming and its negative impact. It's not my function to wade into that controversy here. But from a futurist's perspective, we can look at this as an issue of forecasting—and the historical record of specific forecasts about the future isn't very good.

Take the Population Bomb, which has been resurrected in the latest Tom Hanks movie. But that idea has been around so long that we're already living in the future it projected, and it turned out to be wrong in two respects. Population did not grow as fast as forecast, and the effect of increased population was not as dire as expected. Quite the opposite: As population increased, wealth also increased.

When it comes to global warming, we have to consider the same two possibilities: that the forecasted problem won't arrive, at least not on the schedule and magnitude predicted, or that it will arrive but its impact won't be as bad as predicted.

Some have been asking those questions about global warming. Judith Curry points out that, breathless media headlines notwithstanding, observed temperatures have so far been at or below the low end of forecasts from climate models. Bjorn Lomborg argues that even if global warming is happening, there are other problems we can spend money and resources on that will do more to improve the lives of people around the globe, with more certainty, than trying to cool the atmosphere.

There is a certain political taboo against entertaining these possibilities, because they reduce the sense of urgency in dealing with global warming. But the hard truth is that we have already chosen the future of energy. Restructuring the entire global energy supply takes many decades, and if we were going to do it, we would already be well on our way. Both sides made that decision. The fastest way to achieve a future with zero carbon dioxide emissions would have been a massive expansion of conventional nuclear fission power. But environmentalists opposed such an expansion for other reasons, so it never happened.

The future of energy, therefore, is likely to look more like the past: a gradually evolving mix of energy sources that don't transform suddenly overnight, but instead evolve as new sources of energy prove themselves for new uses. That will be exciting as we expand the power and capabilities of our cars, phones, and the other gadgets that power our lives. And it might not even be the end of the world.


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