THE FUTURE OF ENERGY
HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE LIVE IN ENERGY POVERTY, WHICH AFFECTS THEIR EDUCATION, PROSPECTS, AND WELL BEING. BUT THERE’S AN END IN SIGHT.
ENERGY IS arguably one of the world’s most pressing issues because on the one hand we need more of it than ever before to power our modern world, and on the other it’s a leading cause of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) and climate change, accounting for over 73% of all global GHG when you factor in energy based emissions from agriculture, energy generation, industry, residential, and transport sources. Furthermore, by the year 2050 global energy consumption is estimated to at least double.
In 2019, pre pandemic, the world consumed a total of net 23,398 terrawatt hours of electricity, an increase of over 10,000 terrawatt hours in just two decades, with China and the United States consuming the most with totals of 6,880 terrawatt hours and 4,194 respectively.
But despite these staggering figures today an estimated 759 million people around the world still lack access to certain energy types and live in energy poverty where energy poverty is defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as individuals having access to less than 250 kWh worth of energy in rural areas, and 500 kWh in urban areas. And while this number has fallen from 1.2 billion in 2010 there is still clearly a lot let to be done, especially given the fact that the global COVID-19 pandemic was estimated to have pushed another 30 million people back into energy poverty in Africa alone.
While to many the idea of energy poverty might sound relatively trivial, for example leading people to live in the dark or affecting their technology access, the reality is very different – it impacts everything from cooking, heating, lighting, and sanitation, as well as access to basic healthcare services, all of which have a significant impact on peoples future earnings, education, and wellbeing.
Just taking its impact on cooking and lighting as examples, it’s estimated that the use of indoor fires and kerosene lamps account for more than 4.3 million deaths worldwide. To put this into perspective, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of deaths from biomass cooking alone is more than those from Malaria and HIV combined.
A Charcoal maker
Needless to say energy poverty, whether it’s caused by a lack of access to cheap, reliable energy sources, or even as a result of low income, has a wide range of impacts on both individuals and countries which include everything from depressing economic growth, and thereby increasing the global inequality and wealth gaps, as well as having a material impact on economic prosperity, food security, housing, social mobility, wellbeing, and disaster resilience with the latter becoming increasingly problematic as the world’s climate continues to change, and as pandemics potentially become more common.
When we look at the future of energy and energy poverty though increasingly the news is good – especially when we bear in mind that new sources of energy, such as renewables, are helping push the cost of electricity generation down to near zero, and are helping to decentralise it, meaning that finally people no longer have to rely on governments and organisations to make multi-billion dollar investments in centralised energy infrastructure and traditional distribution grids.
That said though, as ever, energy is a complex topic and the energy mix and sources will need to be diverse in order to accommodate all the needs of a modern society – whether it’s centralised power stations acting as boost for the grid, or decentralised blockchain based solar micro grids serving local energy needs.
So, with all that in mind let’s have a look at what the future of energy has to offer.
OUR LOW COST AND ABUNDANT ENERGY FUTURE
Energy. It was the first thing created in the universe and it will be the last to be destroyed. Which is odd when you consider the fact that according to the Law of Thermodynamics energy can only be transformed or transferred.
However, while theoretical astrophysicists battle it out to solve that particular conundrum the rest of us are fascinated with discovering new ways to transform energy, which we rather inaccurately refer to as “generating” it, and transferring it, or “distributing” it, so we can use it to power our modern world. And, given the fact that energy is literally all around us, as well as in us, you’d have thought that the art of generating and distributing it would be a simple affair. But so far, as history has shown, it’s been anything but.
As we look towards the future though everything we know about the energy industry and market will change beyond all recognition and energy poverty could well become a relic of the past.
Today, for the majority of us at least, we still have to rely on organisations investing hundreds of billions of dollars to extract fossil fuels from the Earth and investing in energy infrastructure, which includes everything from power plants and substations, to distribution grids. And, being incredibly simplistic, the hidden cost of powering your individual business or home therefore is simply insane when you really think about it.
Then there’s the industry’s hidden cost to the planet and society which a recent report from the University of Sussex pegged at a staggering $11.6 Trillion, or almost 14% of global GDP, and that’s before we factor in the 33.1 Gt of Carbon Dioxide the electricity generation industry emits – a third of which comes from coal based generation – and its impact on the climate. Naturally, when you think about these statistics it’s clear that today’s status quo is both illogical and unsustainable.
Increasingly though much of this is the past. Massive centralised biomass, coal, gas, nuclear, and oil power plants are being replaced with decentralised, distributed, micro, and peer to peer energy generation systems like solar and wind – many of which are then aggregated together using Blockchain and other technologies to create Virtual Power Plants. Fossil fuels are giving way to hydrogen, land and marine grown biofuels, and other renewables. Energy grids are moving from dumb and semi-automated to intelligent and fully autonomous, with plans afoot to connect the world’s trans-continental super grids so energy generated in one part of the world can be seamlessly transmitted, or “exported,” to anywhere else on Earth.
Off grid solar in Madagascar
Perhaps the greatest impact of all these changes though is the fact that finally the industries and people of the world can finally predict the future cost of electricity generation and consumption with confidence as generators are no longer bound to the seesawing costs of fossil fuels.
This is made even more profound when we consider the fact that the unsubsidised cost of renewable energy generation is rapidly approaching zero as new innovations such as using 3D printing to create even larger wind turbines, and the emergence of new Perscovite, bacterial, Carbon Nanotube, Graphene, and Black Silicon solar panels which are 32%, 50%, 80% and 132% energy efficient respectively, and which can generate electricity when it’s cloudy, raining, snowing, and even in the dead of night, start leaving the labs.
It should also be noted that these solar developments, which mean solar panels in the future will be able to generate electricity 24/7/365 in almost all conditions, and feed surplus into the grid, could also in time do away with the need to invest in large grid scale storage projects which today provide a boost to the grids when renewables and other energy generation sources fall flat.
New breakthrough energy innovations and technologies like these are everywhere though – especially as almost every country and industry introduces new Net Zero policies which include everything from banning bunker fuel for ships and combustion engines for vehicles, to disconnecting homes from the gas grids, and expedite the electrification of everything – from aircraft and vehicles, to buildings and steel making. And everything in between.
From an energy perspective it can be truly be said that we live in the Wild West again, with pioneers and investors breaking new ground everywhere we look. Whether it’s developing 3D printed nuclear reactors, and nanoscale Triboelectric Nanogenerators (TENGs) that can power the Implanted Medical Devices (IMDs) in our bodies by generating energy from the blood in our arteries, the development of long range wireless energy transmission systems, and all manner of new battery and grid scale storage technologies, activity in the sector is literally exploding. And all that’s merely the dust on the giant Yellowstone super volcano which NASA and partners believe they can use to generate over 6GW of electricity from at a scant $0.10/kWh. But that’s another story.
Obviously, from a consumers perspective their panacea would be to be able to generate electricity where and when it’s needed at zero cost – irrespective of their use case. For example, by using a Piezoelectric energy harvesting fabric that powers the tech in their smart clothes and wearables, or harvesting energy from the environment around them – including everything from heat, noise, and vibrations, to the mmWave 5G signal itself – so their batteryless gadgets and smartphones never need plugging ever again, and never run out of charge.
Amazingly, all these examples have already been successfully demonstrated.
THE FUTURE OF ENERGY SHOWCASE
Explore the technologies and entrepreneurs helping to re-invent energy and solve the world’s energy crisis:
The Future of Energy
Long range wireless energy transmission.
The world’s first Solar Ovens.
Continuing this theme and scaling up, even though today’s electric vehicles (EV’s) rely on LiON batteries or in some cases hydrogen – whether it’s grey, blue, or green – we can already see a point in time when EV’s of all kinds no longer need batteries or plugging into superchargers because they’re coated with photovoltaic materials or can be wirelessly charged. Or both. There’s even an aircraft concept that generates electricity from air friction using a variation of those same TENGs, which this time are embedded into the skin of the aircraft, that I mentioned above. And, yet again, all of these concepts have been successfully demonstrated by companies including Airbus, BMW, Hyundai, Light Year, and Toyota.
Scaling up yet again we have Solar Ovens, a type of advanced solar power concentrator, that replaces electricity from fossil fuel generators to make cement and steel, which materially impacts the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions which are currently 5% of the global total.
And scaling up again we have Fusion on the horizon, still, with a tentatively viable path to Cold Fusion courtesy of the weirdness of 2D materials, mini nuclear reactors, floating nuclear reactors, Travelling Wave nuclear reactors, and water free Thorium nuclear reactors.
There are even plans to deploy 6GW solar power plants in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in space in the mid 2020’s that can beam energy back down to Earth using laser or microwave transmission, and these too have already been tested. These platforms would also have the added benefit of being able to transmit energy to any point on Earth within minutes which, for example, would be incredibly useful during disaster situations or blackouts like the ones we saw hit Texas in 2021.
Despite all these fascinating developments though it’s the battery space that’s by far the most active – from 3D printed batteries that are 400% more energy dense and charge 500% faster than their traditional counterparts, and Solid State batteries, to all manner of alternative battery technologies that include everything from Biological, glass, Lithium Air, Lithium Metal, Lithium Sulfur, Thin Film batteries, and even Graphene based batteries and Elon Musk’s favourite – ultracapacitors.
Further afield there have also been breakthroughs in the development of room temperature superconductors which could reduce the amount of global energy wastage by at least 6% – which would be massive, especially bearing in mind that today we have to generate much more electricity than we need in order to account for wastage. But that’s a story for a future time, and frankly my own energy has been sapped so I’m off to recharge my batteries.