The Future of Energy
By Glen Hiemstra, 2002
“How will we acquire the energy to sustain six to eight billion people on the planet at a reasonable living standard, while not so damaging the ecosystem as to make life too difficult or even impossible?”
Energy is central to modern life, and the future. The current world crisis involving terrorism and the bankruptcy of giant energy trader Enron have once again put the future of energy on the public agenda in the United States. How will we acquire the energy to sustain six to eight billion people on the planet at a reasonable living standard, while not so damaging the ecosystem as to make life too difficult or even impossible? How we answer this question has implications world wide and for future generations. Exploration of this issue is particularly amenable to application of the three-question framework for considering the future, that is, what is probable, what is possible, and what is preferred.
Before we get to those questions, let’s review some current realities and assumptions. First, the world runs on oil, which fuels transportation technologies, generates electricity, and directly heats buildings. In 1972 the famous Club of Rome report predicted that at current levels of use, the world would run out of oil by 1992. Such a prediction repeated similar assertions in the then nearly 100-year history of oil use. Today proven oil reserves are assumed to be enough for about 40 years. But this 40-year horizon constantly retreats, and is likely to continue to do so as advanced technologies for finding and recovering oil develop (See how computing and visualization technologies have greatly enhanced the search for oil in New Old Economy Challenges Scarcity Assumption.)
Second, the need for oil creates a constant geopolitical tension related to the Persian Gulf. In the 1920?s this tension played out as European and U.S. powers resolved this by dividing the Middle East into national oil concessions. When Middle Easter powers nationalized their oil industries in the 1970’s the price of oil increased ten times. And, it has been little noted, changed western consumption habits permanently.
Per capita energy in America declined from 1973 to 2000. More significantly, in the early 1970?s oil was used for everything from heating homes to making electricity to driving cars. Now, the use of oil is becoming confined to transportation and the petrochemical industries. In the U.S. the amount of electricity generated by oil has declined from one-fifth in 1973 to less than one one-hundredth today. Homes heated by oil have declined from one in four to one in 10. In other words we are kicking the oil habit. Except for our SUV’s.
At the same time, oil discovery continues outside the Persian Gulf and prices stay historically low.
Meanwhile, we all know that our energy use, particularly oil and coal, contribute greatly to the prospect for global warming (see UTC Fuel Cells has developed the PC25, generating 200 kilowatts of power, enough to supply a medium-size office building. At this point such units are being used mostly as back-up power sources, for example at data centers like the National Bank of Omaha. Today such fuel cell stacks cost more than twice as much as natural gas turbines, but operate at greater efficiency while producing much less carbon dioxide (which is produced because, lacking a pure source of hydrogen, the fuel cells extract it from the same natural gas that turbines would use). Warm water produced as a by-product of fuel cell use can be applied to heating systems. Expect to see significant growth in installations of fuel cells for power generation, particularly as fuel cells begin to use thin plastic membranes as the basic electrolyte structure, as well as finding ways to apply a platinum catalyst in ever-thinner coats, thus reducing costs. Eventually such fuel cells will migrate to homes (think back-up power generators for starters) and then appliances themselves.
The Holy Grail in fuel cells remains the automobile. The market is enormous, the environmental advantage is obvious when you recall that most oil is now used in cars, and the possible benefits are systemic. Imagine parking lots at commercial buildings where all the vehicles can fill up their hydrogen from the same source as that supplying the building power station fuel cell, and at the same time all the parked cars plug in to become additional power generators.
The two hurdles between here and there are huge however. The first is economic. The price of an internal combustion engine using good old gasoline is about 100 times cheaper than a fuel cell electric engine. And while we have some ability to distribute natural gas, a secondary source of fuel for the cells but not as good as pure hydrogen, as yet we have no feasible proposed means of producing hydrogen and distributing it on a massive scale sufficient for the automobile market.
Still, in 2002 it is possible to see over the horizon images of a hydrogen economy, where fuel cells power everything from airplanes to cars, office buildings to home appliances, and laptops to cell phones. Hydrogen makes up of 75% of all matter. We just have to figure out how to use it.
Solar accounts for only .04% of the world’s power generation. Yet it holds promise for bringing electricity to less developed parts of the world without the need to supply any fuel infrastructure. For the industrially advanced world, solar cells promise a clean and local source of electricity. Solar cell technology still is about four times as expensive as fossil fuel generated electricity. But a possible future is emerging where solar leaps to the head of the line. Traditional solar cells are made using the same silicon semiconductor material used in computer microchips. The material is cheap when used in tiny amounts in computers, but expensive when applied to the massive scale of building roofs. Current technology is allowing the manufacture of super thin films of silicon, bringing down the price to the point where, for example, 20,000 homes in the U.S. derive at least some of their electricity from solar cells.
Breakthroughs are on the horizon however. Inexpensive “amorphous silicon” and semiconductor alloys are enabling the manufacture of cells 100 times thinner than conventional cells, and flexible enough to be applied as a coating on windows, roofing tiles, even skylights. Beyond these materials lie the promise of semiconducting pigments, nanoscale carbon fullerenes, and organic semiconductors capable of being sprayed on a variety of surfaces with an ink-jet printer. If these relatively fragile surfaces were then protected with a polymer coating, a possible future emerges in which everywhere you look, you see surfaces coated with electricity producing solar cells.
In a year 2000 report the UK Marine Oversight Panel asserted that converting less than 0.1% of the ocean’s energy into electricity would supply the total world demand five times over. More conservatively, the World Energy Council says that ocean waves could supply twice the current world consumption of electricity. Could this be part of the energy future? Wavegen, a Scotland based company installed the first shore-based system to commercially produce electricity from wave action. At the same time, AquaEnergy Group is promoting an intriguing solution. In their system a network of floating buoys anchored a mile or two offshore would use pistons that rise and fall with the action of the ocean swells to generate power. Some of the electricity generated onsite could be used to run equipment separating hydrogen from seawater, thus supplying the fuel cell industry as well, a double benefit.
Electricity generation is one thing. Distribution is another, and the current system of transmission lines was built on the assumption that all electricity would be generated at very large central plants, and then distributed via a hub and spoke system. The system is inefficient, not just because of the energy drain of sending electrons long distances, but because it is difficult for the system to adjust to changing demand patterns, much less to intelligently use energy for greatest efficiency. Progress has been made in this arena, but over the horizon is a vision in which a truly intelligent grid both accepts and feeds electricity to millions of local sites, local sites which generat electricity with fuel cells for example, and use smart appliances. Imagine dishwashers, refrigerators, and air conditioners that can sense when the prices are best, when the grid is over or under used, and adjust their operation for the greatest benefit of the homeowner and of the public grid at the same time. Intelligent distributed generation is the stuff of research and dreams but within the realm of the possible.
Other Energy Sources
We’ve not addressed advances in converting natural gas to liquid fuel, wind power, nuclear power, biomass and geothermal, all technologies for which there are possible future scenarios. We’ve not addressed coal, the most abundant of fossil fuels. We’ve not addressed solar power satellites, still on the drawing boards. And we’ve not addressed the more exotic energy research fields where a breakthrough would lead to a paradigm shift in global energy use, fields like Helium 3 fusion from the Moon, Zero-Point energy, and energy from magnetics and gravitics. We’ll tackle all of these in future articles.
In the field of energy, the need to answer the question ?what future do we prefer? seems obvious and profound. The probable near term future (5-15 years), for economic and political reasons, is to pursue cheap fossil fuels. But maybe not forever or even for long. The middle-term possible future (10-25 years) is for substantial progress in alternate and cleaner technologies, despite the current dearth of government research and development. The January 2002 U.S. Federal government move to support fuel cell car development may mark a step toward a transition. For the long term preferred future (25 years plus), why would we not choose an energy future that assures both abundant energy and a clean environment? And that means hydrogen fuel cells, natural gas and liquid fuels from natural gas, solar energy, wave and wind energy, and oil and coal only when and were appropriate and unavoidable.
(Author note: this synopsis relies significantly on the outstanding Technology Review special issue on Energy, January/February 2002. For more in depth information take at look.)
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.