Imagining the Future of Energy

The harnessing of energy is one of the most transformative shifts in human history. Controlling fire enabled the cooking of food, which potentially led to an increased brain size; coal and the steam engine powered the industrial revolution, initiating accessible intercontinental travel and the spread of culture; and oil turned multi-week voyages into multi-hour trips - and our first steps off the Earth. Energy has been instrumental in human civilisation - and will continue to be so into our future.

The 21st century is undergoing another massive energy transition, and it’s accelerating. As I write this in 2023, we are rapidly approaching a tipping point - investments in fossil fuels are facing severe opposition, renewable energies are breaking records for both production and price, and EV sales are already the largest segment in some markets.

Facing this, what could the energy world of the future look like, in the most optimistic case?

Although this may not come true, imagining what is possible can act like a north star, providing inspiration and a much-needed dose of positivity.

Let’s start with the most obvious - unlimited energy from non-polluting, renewable sources. Enough solar energy hits the Earth every day to cover human energy usage 10,000 times (see my article here about the solar and wind potential on our planet here). Add wind, geothermal, and hydro, and there is plenty of energy to fulfil human needs. In fact, low-carbon sources already provide over a third of global electricity. Additionally, if nuclear fusion is realised at scale, we have another potentially limitless energy source, with zero waste. All of this produces energy in the same form, too, electricity - no need for oil or gas.

Unlimited energy in the form of electricity would lead to the electrification of everything - which is already happening. Electric vehicles will get us around, electric heaters with keep us warm, electric climate control systems will help grow our food in vertical farms. As an added bonus, the air will be cleaner, as there will be fewer emissions from combustibles, improving human health.

Unlimited energy could change the business model too. Currently energy is paid for by the kWh - that is, the more you use, the more you pay. This is partially because there is a variable cost - a fuel is required for energy generation, so it costs the producer more money to produce more energy. Renewable energy needs no fuel. Of course there will still be costs, such as installation and maintenance of power plants, and transmission/distribution networks, but it weakens the link between cost and consumption, which should reduce the marginal cost. Parallels can be made to communications - in the early days you paid per minute of a call, per text message, per MB of data. Now, you pay a flat fee and get unlimited usage, subject to a fair use policy. Electricity could be the same - or, even more extreme, could simply be provided by the Government free of charge (at least to residential households) as a basic human right.

If we combine these three - unlimited free electricity that can power almost anything - there is little need to conserve. The impacts of this could be astonishing. If we didn’t have to worry about fuel costs we could travel as much as we want, as fast as we want, increasing trade and productivity. We could always maintain a comfortable room temperature, so we’re not too hot in summer or cold in winter, reducing illness (particularly in the elderly). We could even go back to the incandescent bulbs, for improved atmosphere and sleep.

The distributed nature of future energy sources could dramatically reduce geopolitical tensions, resulting in fewer conflicts.

Most wars are fought over resources, either land or energy (e.g. oil). Currently a few countries hold major supplies of fossil fuels, and this gives them immense power - the recent war in Ukraine has been a clear demonstration of this, as has the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Withholding the exportation of energy can be used to blackmail countries who would otherwise be opposed to the policies of the exporting country. As the saying goes, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

On the other hand, weak resource-rich countries are vulnerable to invasion or exploitation by strong resource-poor countries. Resource wealth could be used to strengthen a country to mitigate this, but often, due to corruption, many resource-rich countries end up in a worse situation than resource-poor ones (see the resource curse).

However, every country has the potential to generate some form of renewable energy, reducing the reliance on external supply. There will still be energy trade, as some countries have better renewable energy potential than others, but if a country can fulfil its basic energy needs internally it cannot so easily be held to ransom. Additionally, weak resource-rich countries become relatively less resource-rich, and resource-poor countries become relatively less resource-poor, decreasing the chance of an invasion.

There are a few caveats to this, of course. For one thing, we shouldn’t capture all the energy we can - for example, plants need solar energy to photosynthesise, and we need plants to eat. However, there is plenty of “wasted” energy, such as solar energy impacting rooftops, and energy that could be siphoned off without causing environmental impacts, such as with geothermal or wind energy (no, it won’t cool the planet’s core, or stop the Trade Winds blowing - although interestingly huge offshore wind farm installations theoretically could reduce the impact of hurricanes)

There will also need to be some big shifts in the structure of the energy network. Going from a few large centralised power plants to hundreds of thousands of small distributed sources (alongside large wind and solar farms) means the transmission and distribution networks will need major upgrades, both physically and technically.

The electrification of everything combined with unlimited supply will result in increased demand, meaning more power travelling through the network. However, smart technologies such as demand response, enabled by smart metering, can reduce the peaks and troughs, as can locally-generated energy (e.g. rooftop solar), which will reduce the demand from external sources (i.e. the grid).

Energy storage - “for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine” - will need to be integrated at both the grid level and small scale. For the former, there are dozens of potential solutions - hydro, CAES, hydrogen, chemical batteries. For the latter, every new building could have a battery installed as standard. Additionally, an electric vehicle with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capability would store enough to run an average house for ~2 days, providing further flexibility.

The culmination of this will result in a more resilient, more efficient, more stable energy grid.

A third factor is the production of the energy-generating equipment. According to the IEA’s Energy Perspectives Report 2023, China currently owns most of the manufacturing ability for renewable technologies, such as solar PV wafers and wind turbine blades, and is the largest provider of many of the materials needed for these technologies, such as aluminium, lithium, steel, and rare earth elements. Outside of China, the supply chain has ethical concerns - much has been discussed about the cobalt used in many lithium-ion batteries coming from slave/child labour in the (un)Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, new technologies are constantly being developed and tested, in part to reduce this reliance on unsustainable and unethical-sourced substances, and new government initiatives, such as the Inflation Reduction Act in the USA, are attempting to reduce the reliance on China.

As you can see, the future of energy could be incredible! And I truly hope it will be. There will be some obstacles along the way, but if you consider this hairless ape has managed to use exploding dinosaurs to fly at tens of thousands of kilometres an hour, I’m sure we can do it!