The future of energy
W hen it comes to the energy we use to power the economy, humanity is at a turning point.
The World Energy Council, a global energy network accredited by the United Nations, calls it the “energy trilemma,” meaning the urgent need to make sure the world’s citizens have enough energy, that it is equitably available, and that it is both “low carbon” and sustainable over time.
The most recent report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, written by hundreds of scientists, reviewed by more than 800 experts and released this year, says that to avoid the worst effects of high-carbon concentrations in the atmosphere and ocean, humanity will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions greatly by the middle of this century and then stop them entirely by the end of the century.
But the recipe for how to do that is unclear. Some of the ingredients could be drawing coal-produced carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground, a mechanism that is still uncommon and uses energy heavily in its own right. Other options are low-carbon sources of energy, such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal, more nuclear energy and possibly energy derived from biofuels, such as cornstalks and plant wastes. Or perhaps it will be a whole new, decentralized system of green energies.
And what about getting energy from place to place, a hot-button topic in North America at the moment? Is the answer more pipelines? More rail cars? More storage in fuel cells? Sharp cuts in energy use that reduce the need for transporting the stuff? Or what about a new energy Internet, using household computers to do the heavy distribution work for a more decentralized grid?
Because the path forward is so unsure, we’ve gathered the perspectives of three of the world’s leading forecasters on what they think energy and its movement will look like in the future.
W hen he peers into the future of energy, Jeremy Bentham sees volatility and uncertainty. Bentham, vice-president of global business environment at Netherlands-based Shell and head of its future-reading scenarios arm, says the choices society and business make about energy over the next five years will have “profound consequences over the next decades.”
Drawing on large networks of external and internal experts, his team has come up with two starkly different but plausible and quantified scenarios for the rest of this century. They are driven by a clutch of factors, including the fact that the economic heart of the planet is shifting to the East, and that the quality-of-life aspirations of emerging economies and already developed economies are in tension with the planet’s own limits for supporting them.
In each scenario, global emissions of carbon dioxide gas will decline and nearly disappear by the end of the century, but with different trajectories and implications for the planet’s health. Bentham notes that each scenario contains strong positive trends, including reduced poverty combined with greater life expectancy, health outcomes and higher literacy and levels of education. As well, each has troubling features such as volatility around resources and what he calls the “environmental stress nexus,” in which water, energy, food and climate stress will all feed on each other. The choices society makes will help determine the balance of positive and troubling features, he says.
Of the two scenarios, one sees clean-burning natural gas becoming the dominant source of energy by 2030, replacing oil and coal. In turn, that leads to less overall damage from emissions, but a slower transition to renewable forms of energy.
The second way forward projects heavier reliance on solar energy by 2070, meaning more emissions from fossil fuels in the medium term and therefore more sustained damage to the climate and ocean systems.
Bentham says it’s important to connect North American energy to the global energy markets. That means pipelines will be important.
Apart from those two scenarios, Bentham has identified general trends in the coming decades. Underlying demand for energy could triple by the middle of this century from 2000 levels, yet supply will have trouble matching it, and resulting energy consumption
will be about double.
In his view, government policies will be key to managing this potential for “misery.” Smart policies and technologies could help the coming transition be smoother, while “knee-jerk policies and price shocks” could have the opposite effect.
Bentham says renewable forms of energy have a big and growing role to play in the future but that the pace of their development means that fossil fuels will have an important role for a long time to come. That’s partly because of the sheer scope of the infrastructure of the global economy and energy system. For example, he says solar could move out of its current economic niche to become mainstream in a couple of decades. And after a few decades more, it has the potential to be the largest primary energy source in the mix.
As for how energy will be transported, Bentham says it’s important to connect North American energy to the global energy markets. Energy use in North America is relatively stable, and if Canada and the United States want to get tight gas, shale gas, oil from liquid-rich shales and heavy oils to the growing Asia-Pacific markets, they will have to transport them either south or across the ocean. That means pipelines will be important. He points particularly to opportunities for liquefying natural gas and then transporting it to global markets.
Bentham says that business, governments and civil society must “dance together,” to make sure that transportation is done responsibly and notes the important role First Nations must play in that dance.
T o Jeremy Rifkin, the future of energy has already arrived. It does not rely on carbon-based fossil fuels, and its basic elements are in place now in several parts of the world.
Rifkin, best-selling author of more than 20 books and founder of Maryland-based Foundation on Economic Trends, has not only seen this future, but he has given it a name and endowed it with a coherent narrative arc.
It centres on what he calls the “third industrial revolution,” described in a book of the same name that has also led to a global business round table of chief executives. In essence, it connects renewable energy and the Internet. Energy, he writes, rather than being produced by heavily capitalized and centralized utilities and by specialized oil and gas developers, will be produced on a scale as micro as the solar panels on your rooftop. Rather than being controlled by a few multinational players, it will be controlled by everyone with a computer chip, since the grid will be controlled by the Internet.
Distribution systems, including pipelines and rail transport for fossil fuels, will become obsolete as countries switch to a decentralized grid. Each family, neighbourhood and business, he writes, will become a critical node in a distributed and collaborative energy network.
His theory is based in past economic transformations that linked energy and communications. In the first industrial revolution in the 18th century, coal and steam power converged with the emergence of the printing press. That was replaced in the 20th century by the second industrial revolution, which linked centralized electricity, and oil and gas, with the communication power of telephones, radio and television.
But that second revolution is in its dying days, Rifkin says. He points to Europe and Asia as proof that a lean, green and decentralized system is on the way.
Rifkin thinks distribution systems, including pipelines and rail transport for fossil fuels, will become obsolete as countries switch to a decentralized grid.
Leaders of the European Council and European Commission have already embraced the principles of the Third Industrial Revolution, and have used them as the basis for a plan to achieve a competitive, low-carbon economy by the middle of the century. The investment in infrastructure — including a “green electricity Internet” — will need to grow from its current 19 per cent of GDP to about 20.5 per cent, Rifkin calculates.
Germany is already setting the pace. Today, 20 per cent of its electricity comes from renewable sources, and that’s expected to climb to 35 per cent by 2020. A million buildings are micro-generators. Hydrogen storage facilities are in the works, and the green energy Internet is being tested.
China’s leaders are also building a post-carbon economy based on Rifkin’s model. In December, they announced an $82-billion investment in an energy Internet to support the plan so citizens can produce their own energy and share it.
S ome would call Chris Martenson, who is an economics and energy analyst and futurist, a doomsday prophet. After all, the website he co-founded, PeakProsperity.com and its phenomenally successful free online Crash Course, now also a book, talk openly about the not too distant, chaotic time when oil will be gone.
Not only that, but a whole section of his website is devoted to helping people prepare for a wildly uncertain future, including tips on stockpiling food and clean water, learning first aid, laying in medical supplies and buying gold as a financial safety net.
“For anybody who wants to hear that there will be no changes and the future will be better than the past, I’m a total doomer,” he says, chuckling.
Perhaps even more telling, Martenson has moved from the city to a farm in western Massachusetts,where he and his wife home-school their kids and grow their own food.
The bottom line, he says, is that the end of oil will mean that there’s simply less energy available for everyone in the western world. Much of the world’s energy will end up in the East, where it will be more expensive and therefore used more efficiently than it had been in the West, when energy was plentiful. But no matter where you are, what’s available will take a larger proportion of society’s efforts to produce, leaving less money and time to spend on other parts of the economy.
And eventually, the oil and other fossil fuels will run out.
“The future of energy is that we know we will not be burning fossil fuels, whether it’s in 30 years or 100 years,” he says.
Martenson doesn’t see much change in the transportation of energy apart from keeping the North American electrical grid in good repair and adding natural gas pipelines in the East Coast of the U.S. On the horizon, he sees energy distribution occurring at the neighbourhood or household level, but only accompanied by big breakthroughs in energy storage.
Martenson believes energy distribution will occur at the neighbourhood or household level, but only accompanied by big breakthroughs in energy storage.
He rejects the idea of ramping up nuclear energy on the grounds that there’s too little uranium available. And the inevitable switch away from oil and toward renewable energies is unlikely to be smooth, he says.
Martenson points out that, in the past, whenever human civilizations have switched sources of energy, they’ve gone from less dense forms to more dense — from wood to coal to oil — never the other way around. Shifting to renewable energies means going in the opposite direction, toward forms of energy that are less dense than oil.
To him, that means society’s best bet is to plan well, figuring out what sorts of renewable power to focus on, and realistically assessing how much of society’s energy it will take to get there. A key to the future will be to learn how to use less energy through conservation and efficiencies, a move that is “not yet in our collective narrative,” he says. Yet Martenson is buoyantly optimistic about the future of energy and of human civilization, calling himself a “realistic optimist.” He sees the possibility of whole new industries springing up to save energy, including solar thermal energy to heat water.
– Alanna Mitchell