What does the future of energy look like?
Revisiting the past, analyzing the present to determine the roadmap for future.
In 1964, Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scale to measure the technological advancement of a civilization on the basis of their total usable energy. The idea behind it is straightforward, as a civilization grows and advances, it will require more energy to meet the need of its population and machines. Originally, the scale had three categories:
and later was extended to included Type 0, IV, and V by other astronomers.
Essentially, these energy scales imply that a Type I civilization would be able to harness the entire power of its host planet, which includes being able to use all the starlight that falls onto it as well have control over other natural forces, be it weather, earthquakes, tectonic plates or volcanoes.
Type II civilization goes a step up and takes this to the planetary level. These civilizations can fully control the energy of their neighboring stars and use it for their own energy needs! And, wait till you hear about the others, Type III civilizations can control and use the energy of an entire galaxy, which reaches the scale of our universe and multiple universes for Type IV and V respectively.
While all of this sounds super fascinating and sci-fi, hinting us towards extraterrestrial races or species, where do humans lie on this scale?
Well, we aren’t there on the original scale yet, we are a Type 0 civilization, which is yet to harness the full potential of its home planet. To be precise, according to Carl Sagan’s extrapolated scale, we are at 0.73.
A lot of technological advancements in the past decades have helped us get here and the future is full of exciting opportunities and innovations in the energy sector. In this issue, I’ll start with a brief history of our energy use and then highlight the energy sources of the future that will help us in saving the planet as well as reaching the status of Type-I civilization.
→ Overview of energy use
→ The Renewables >> | Solar | Wind | Hydro | Geothermal | Biofuels
→ Nuclear Energy
→ The Unconventionals >> Human Power | Space
→The Path Ahead
Overview of our energy use
Our primary sources of energy have been sun, wind, and water since times immemorial. Sun provided the heat, wind and water moved our simple machines that would grind cereals, and we used biomass (wood) for cooking. We turned to animals for stuff we couldn’t do or that felt too taxing. Transport was simple, bulls and horses moved the cart and winds drove the sails. That’s the basic stuff that we learned in junior school.
>> Invention of Steam Engine (1760s)
Things changed drastically with the industrial revolution (precisely, why it’s called a revolution) and we haven’t looked back ever since. The key to which was the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in the mid 18th century. We could now harness the power of steam to move our simple machines and get a lot of work done. Watt helped us in getting rid of the horses and measuring the output of our machines in horsepower instead.
>> Rise of Coal & Gasoline
Coal became the fuel of centuries, coal-driven steam engines propelled the industrial revolution as we know it. By the 1880s, coal had started firing an electricity generating station developed by Edison to supply electricity for household lights in New York City.
This period was particularly appealing, hydro-power was used to supply electricity for lighting and heating in England. While coal was being increasingly used to fire power plants, a new fuel was catching on - oil. Initially used for only heating and medicinal purposes, oil (processed into gasoline) ushered the era of internal combustion engines by the turn of the century, thanks to its higher energy content.
With Henry Ford perfecting his assembly line for Model T and mass-producing them in the early 20th century, automobiles could be afforded by the middle class, which were the luxury of the rich earlier. These new cars were cheaper, easy to maintain, and more reliable, significantly increasing the demand for gasoline increased.
The advent of low-cost automobiles and the spread of electricity changed the way we had perceived energy. The growing population’s demand doubled every 10 years, coal power plants became larger, dams built to harness the power of water popped up at multiple places all over the world.
>>Nuclear and Gas
The World War era fueled the research in Nuclear Physics, and by the 1940s, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi had successfully demonstrated the first human-controlled, self-sustained nuclear reactor.
Nuclear energy was not only a cleaner source of energy but so much more efficient than coal & oil. The then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in the US, Lewis Strauss went on to say that home will enjoy electricity that is ‘too cheap to meter’.
Mid 20th century onward, oil became the top source of energy in the world with mass production of cars. The world, as we know today, is increasingly dependent on petroleum, becoming a key parameter of any nation’s economy. The increased demand has also lead to a surge in oil prices and governments trying to bring it down to reasonable levels.
Another cleaner source of energy that emerged was Natural Gas, which has close ties with oil. Though the production of gas peaked in the 1970s, it got resurrected with the shale gas boom in the US. Today, gas is the third most widely used energy resource after oil and coal.
Further, in the 1970s, the oil crisis had led to an interest in solar power as an alternate source of energy, and the development of photovoltaics. Lately, there has been a greater interest in such renewable sources of energy (more on this in the next sections). The graph above shows how our primary energy consumption has changed over the years.
As per BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2019), global primary energy consumption grew rapidly in 2018 at a rate of 2.9%, which is almost double its 10-year average of 1.5% per year.
The growth was led by natural gas and renewables, with gas contributing to more than 40% of the increase alone.
China followed by the US and India is the largest consumer of energy. Together these countries have accounted for more than two-thirds of the global increase in energy demand, with US consumption expanding at its fastest rate for 30 years.
>>Climate Change and Environmental Impact
The energy consumption from the three primary fossil fuels: oil, coal, and gas, comes with its own share of non-trivial issues, mostly related to their environmental impact and sustainability that need to be addressed in paving the way for the future.
The first problem is that of their renewability, though these fossil fuels can be replenished, they take millions of years to form and are thus categorized as non-renewable. Experts have already foreseen peaks for these resources, we are likely to hit peak oil soon and supply is only going to decrease post that, while coal and natural gas are expected to last longer.
The second is that of global warming and air pollution. The burning of these fossil fuels generates a lot of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which have contributed to the rise in temperatures all over the world. Further, coal produces twice the amount of carbon dioxide than natural gas per unit of energy generated, and combined with other pollutants has led to the air quality index worsening over the years. Carbon Dioxide is the leading cause of global warming and the emissions grew by 2% in 2018 itself, the fastest growth in the past seven years.
Efforts are being made to reduce carbon emissions globally. The Paris Accord of Climate Change (2015) calls for limiting the global average temperature rise in this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and putting in best efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees, as well as cutting GHG emissions by 40-70% by 2050. This is precisely the reason why Trump withdrawing from the Paris agreement meant a huge deal, and rightly so.
The world has abundant fuel sources and the fossil fuel reserves (i.e. fuel has a good chance of being profitably extracted) are just a tiny fraction of them. With advancements in technology and new extraction techniques, it is possible that the number of these reserves will increase slightly.
Hence, the need of the hour to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels is more due to the impact on climate change than the question of availability of their reserves. The limit of 2 degrees Celsius will be easily reached if we burn 20-30% of existing global reserves.
However, fossil fuels don’t need to be entirely phased out. They will contribute to the energy demands in the future, especially, coal due to its low cost and abundance, provided that clean coal techniques emerge.
To avoid going beyond the point of no return, the race is on to switch to low carbon energy systems.
First up on the list has to be renewables. Scaling up electricity from renewables is crucial for the decarbonization of the world's energy system. With technological innovations disrupting the energy sector, the low cost of renewable energy is soon going to become a reality worldwide. The global average cost of renewables has declined rapidly in the past two decades and large economies are increasingly getting powered by renewables.
Renewables are projected to produce more than 30% of total power generation in the United Kingdom and provided around 44% of Germany’s power demand in 2019. China has emerged as the top consumer of renewables and accounted for 45% of global growth (BP WER, 2019). In April 2019, renewables supplied more power to the grid than coal in America.
They are projected to be the fastest-growing energy source by 2040, followed by nuclear energy. Chief among them are solar and wind, which have dominated the energy additions in the power sector in 2018. Together, they are the least expensive forms of power in two-thirds of the world and will power more than half the world by 2050 as per Bloomberg.
The most abundant energy source on Earth, the energy emitted by the sun in the form of sunlight each second has enough power to meet our current energy demands for over a few hours.
Initially, the main problem with solar was that of cost and the fact that the sun shines only through a part of the day. PV cells and their large scale installation was quite expensive and thus unpopular against the fossils.
Now, the future of solar power looks bright, thanks to the advancements in tech. The production cost of silicon chips has decreased, innovations in photovoltaic (PV) cells such as bi-facial modules (that allow light to be absorbed from both the sides), anti-reflective coatings and single-axis trackers (that allow cells to track the position of the sun through the day) have increased the efficiency of these cells manifolds. The costs of solar energy have decreased dramatically in the last decade, as seen from the trends below:
Combined with decreasing costs of solar storage, both the initial problems are now solved to an extent. The current innovations are focusing on how to integrate solar better into our home and business.
In India, the cost of installing solar panels ranges from ₹50,000-₹70,000 per KW depending on the scale and usage for on-grid (directly connected to the grid) and off-grid (standalone power that gets store in batteries) systems. It is projected that solar costs will halve in the next two decades, making them the most important source of electricity generation
Currently, the most established renewable energy source (other than hydro), wind accounted for around 50% of renewables generation in the last few years. It is projected that wind power would supply more than one-third of the total electricity demand by 2050.
High wind power generation scenarios are directly correlated to high total power generation, positioning wind as the major renewable resource in decarbonizing the energy sector. Innovations in turbine and blade designs have lowered the cost of wind energy significantly to be on par with fossils in most regions. Larger turbines reduce up-front costs partly due to the economies of scale as well as lead to increased performance both on land and on-shore.
The focus in the future will be more on off-shore wind scenarios, which are particularly appealing due to stronger winds and lesser restrictions on development. Since they are more consistent, the problem of intermittency (one of the drawbacks of wind energy) is solved and will allow countries to achieve gigawatt-scale projects in densely populated coastal areas.
Denmark having established the first offshore wind farm in 1991 is leading the way in demonstrating the true potential of the scenario. Off-shore wind is projected to supply more than half of the country’s power by 2050. In India, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has announced ambitious plans for 5 GW of offshore wind by 2022 and 30 GW by 2030.
Further, innovations like floating off-shore wind farms (Hywind, Scotland) are catching on. The concept of airborne wind turbines designed to harness the power of high altitude winds (which are not only stronger but also consistent) is super fascinating. They eliminate the need and costs of constructing higher towers and other structural investments, making wind energy extremely low cost.
Hydropower has been there for centuries and will continue to be a part of the future energy mix. It is currently, the largest source of renewable energy and accounts for roughly 19% of total electricity generation (IEA, 2018), therefore, it is considered separately when compared to other renewables.
Considered as the cheapest and most reliable source of energy, the world’s hydroelectric consumption increased by 3.1% in 2018, above the ten-year average of 2.8%. Additionally, hydro projects are also linked with irrigation supply, drought management, flood control, and other water supply networks.
Among other water-based energy generation sources, more focus will shift towards wave and tidal power, which are currently in development as the environmental impacts of large dams have led to growing concerns among ecologists.
Tapping into the vast potential beneath the earth’s crust, geothermal energy is projected to supply 1/6th of the world’s energy. Geothermal technology harnesses heat generated beneath the crust, with heat pumps extracting steam or hot water to surface level.
Currently, the limitations are in terms of mapping and identification of geothermal resources and the fact that it requires geographies with good to excellent high-geothermal resources, close to the Earth’s surface, found only in seismic areas or where tectonic plates meet. Only 10% of the world’s area is fit for geothermal production (where hot water bubbles up to the surface). The top three countries producing geothermal power include the US, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Though the extraction costs have decreased in the past few decades, rapid technology advancements are essential to substantially increase the potential of geothermal resources.
One such technology that can actually help us benefit from the exact potential of geothermal is Hot Dry Rock or Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS). By injecting high-pressure water deep into hot dry rocks, the natural process of geothermal can be triggered. However, efforts and investments need to be made in this direction to make it more economically viable. Re-purposing old, depleted gas and oil wells as geothermal plants is a step ahead in this direction, as it would minimize the structural costs.
Just like the wind, drilling off-shore geothermal plants and tapping into magma power by drilling in volcanoes (researchers in Iceland are busy exploring this!) are other exciting options for geothermal in the future.
Also known as alternative fuels, they are being strongly promoted to take place of oil as a transport fuel and reduce the related GHG emissions. Biofuels are derived from renewable plant-based organic matter, these fuels can be incorporated both as gasoline (bioethanol) and diesel (biodiesel) in the current distribution system.
As per BP energy review, biofuels production growth averaged 9.7% in 2018, the highest growth since 2010, and slightly above the 10-year average. Brazil and Indonesia together accounted for almost two-thirds of global growth.
Bioethanol is produced via fermentation of sugar derived from sugar cane/beetroot or starch-rich materials such as corn whereas biodiesel is produced from oil containing plants. Since their production is limited by food sources, the focus has shifted to advanced biofuels which are derived from non-plant based materials such as agricultural waste and forestry residues.
An idea that is still being worked upon is to derive energy from algae! Algae is rich in oils that can be converted directly into biofuels. They can also be used to treat wastewater at the same time. The first algae biofuel system was set-up in Alabama in 2014, you can read more about it here.
Though biofuels are not entirely carbon-neutral due to pollution generated from farming and fuel used for distillation, they can save GHG emission by 80% - 90% as compared to fossils.
Current research in this sector is focusing on replacing kerosene with biofuel as aviation fuel. The aviation sector is one of the leading producers of carbon dioxide and GHGs currently, and is determined to reduce such emission in near future.
Innovation and public investments are required in order to reduce the production/operation costs associated with biofuels which are more expensive than gasoline and diesel.
The future mix would be incomplete without nuclear energy, one of the cleanest and most efficient energy source that can generate electricity without producing any carbon dioxide or GHGs. Nuclear energy is going to play a significant role in transitioning to carbon-free power and combating climate change.
As per PRIS, nuclear energy accounts for 10% of total electricity generation globally and is the second-largest low carbon energy source after hydropower. Today, there are more than 440 nuclear fission reactors in the world with a combined electrical capacity of roughly 400 Gigawatt. Nuclear consumption increased by 2.4% in 2018 with China accounting for almost three-quarters of global growth (BP Energy Review). The graph below shows countries with most reactors as of 2019.
The two main processes for harnessing nuclear energy include fission and fusion corresponding to splitting and merging the nuclei of two or more atoms. All commercial reactors are based on fission which uses uranium as fuel. To satisfy the growing demands, the uranium found in the earth’s crust will last for less than a century.
>> Future Tech
Further, several challenges related to the disposal of nuclear waste, safety, security, and reliability need to be addressed in the nuclear sector. Nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have pushed for more research in developing safer technologies.
The innovative concepts include a more distributed network of smaller nuclear plants that will be used for powering neighborhoods in place of cities. Off-shore nuclear plants are also a possibility! Apart from being farther away, these plants will also have access to an enormous supply of cold water that can cool the reactor in case of a power loss.
TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates is developing a new class of fast reactors called traveling wave reactors that breed on its own fuel. Starting with a small amount of enriched uranium to initiate the nuclear reaction, the remaining fuel is provided in terms of depleted uranium (produced by recycling spent nuclear fuel) that is converted into a fertile material (capable of fission) through nuclear transmutation. These reactors can sustain themselves for years increasing production efficiency without generating much nuclear waste.
>> Nuclear Fusion
The other approach is to utilize the reaction that powers the stars - Nuclear fusion. Fusion reactors have multiple advantages over the fission ones due to reduced radioactivity, minimal nuclear waste, and increased safety. And, the fuel that it requires - hydrogen is abundant on earth.
However, nuclear fusion requires an enormous amount of energy and pressure to fuse the two atoms together. Though fusion is capable of producing more energy than required, so far, no one has succeeded in harnessing the power of fusion in a controlled manner on earth i.e a reactor that will produce more energy than it consumes.
Consistent efforts are being made to make it viable at large scales. Interestingly, as per a recent study published a few days ago, a viable nuclear fusion reactor could be a possibility by 2025!
In 2018, I visited Mike Cassidy in Mountain View. He was working on Apollo Fusion, his attempt at an alternate energy source. I had a lovely time looking at some early tests with a machine he called “Mr. Fusion”. I’m personally fascinated by startups like these & I believe it’s the only way we can solve our energy problems.
We need Innovation in the space to expedite the process. For this to happen, more venture capital needs to go to startups working on such ideas. However, there may be some trouble here since this sector will take decades to mature and give meaningful returns that don’t go too well with return cycles of the majority of funds.
Apart from the energy sources mentioned above, there are a few more that are likely to play a key role in the future. The on-going research on these sources looks promising and since they aren’t so common, I prefer to call them ‘the unconventionals’.
1. Human Power
Sounds crazy, right? That’s what I thought earlier, but it turns out that generating power through human movement is an incredible option.
Experts believe that humans can easily generate microwatts of energy that is enough to power small devices. We just need a system that can collect our mechanical energy and convert it into electricity.
The answer to this is Piezoelectricity which literally means ‘pressing electricity’. Piezoelectric crystals generate electricity when squeezed, if we have wearable fitted with such a system, we would be able to collect some energy doing our daily activity. Roads and bridges equipped with such systems will be able to produce a lot more energy from the collective movement of multiple vehicles and pedestrians.
And, there are prototypes for gym machines connected to generators that will use your movements to generate electricity. In fact, cyclists have been powering their headlight just by their motion using bicycle dynamos for a long time now.
Once a viable and economic system to put all of this into action develops, it will be no less than a revolution. Because, while all other resources get shared among multiple people, human power will only increase with the human population. Keep an eye out, you can read more about this concept here.
Next up is space. Space will be the ladder in climbing upwards on the Kardashev scale. Plans and roadmap to colonize Mars and moon have existed since the era of sci-fi, and are now gaining traction. It’s definitely farther in the future as compared to others, but we do know that NASA, SpaceX, and others have already taken up a lot of ambitious projects in space exploration.
In terms of energy, space-based solar power looks most promising. Since a part of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the atmosphere making it less efficient, orbiting solar panels will be able to collect a lot more energy and then transmit it back to earth via laser/microwave emitter. The problems of clouds, bad weather, and storage can all be eliminated as we’ll have a continuous supply of solar energy. See the schematic above.
The Path Ahead
I think it’s clear by now that the future will not be dependent on a single energy source but a mix of sources. Low carbon technologies will take over the hydrocarbons and we will be set to utilize all types of resources in a sustainable manner in the next few decades.
Capturing energy from any source, be it renewable or not, will always be clubbed with certain environmental impacts. We have already seen the harmful impact of fossils. There’s the issue of radioactive waste with nuclear energy, whereas large wind turbines create a lot of noise pollution. Dams interrupt fish migration paths and solar uses a lot of lands that can impact the flora and fauna of an area.
Therefore, efforts need to be made in minimizing the environmental impacts associated with these low carbon sources, as they are going to be the energy mix of the future.
At the same time, more innovation is needed in carbon capture and sequestration to reduce the carbon dioxide generated from hydrocarbons. Our dependence on oil is going to decrease as more and more electric cars come into the picture with innovation in Li-ion batteries. Further, the electric grid system must adapt to the switch from hydrocarbons to renewables as well.
Apart from technology, international policies and government have a key role to play in determining the path ahead. Only through mutual co-operation and understanding, we will able to limit the temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, as set by the Paris accord. Subsidies in renewables will push more people and businesses to find ways to utilize them.
As we begin extracting energy from all these sources in an efficient manner, we’ll be able to meet the demands of the population that is expected to triple by the turn of this century and reach closer to attaining the status of Type-I civilization. But before that, we must start embracing the renewables and cut down on our dependence on fossil fuels.
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Really Nice and Informative Post