Energy is the life-blood of society … its history being as old as humanity. We use energy to pump water, grow crops, deliver food, manufacture goods, and power our homes, hospitals and public places. In fact, capita energy consumption is a good indicator of economic prosperity. So what will the global energy landscape look like in the next thirty, fifty or even hundred years?
In the past, the energy was derived mostly by burning wood, and augmented by water wheels and windmills. With the dawn of the industrial revolution, coal came to the fore, only to be displaced gradually by fossil fuels in the form of petroleum and natural gas. Nuclear power enjoyed a brief surge. Recently, renewable energy, and chemical energy in the form of fuel cells has started gain popularity, especially as price per kWh continues to drop year after year. This trajectory is well known, but there is another dynamic. One that is often overlooked, but will become progressively important in the years to come. It is the energy ecosystem.
Historically, energy was harnessed and used at the local level – homes, farms and markets. Over time, we migrated to higher economies of scale based on the technology at hand. For example, when converting heat into electricity or kinetic energy, the efficiency of your car engine or that of a small home-based generator is merely 15%. Conversely, large combined-cycle power plants can convert 45% of the heat from burning fossil fuels into electricity that is subsequently used in homes, farms and businesses. As such, it has been economically preferable to focus on capital-intense, high efficiency, centralized sources of power. This shift from decentralized to centralized power generation and distribution has been well over a hundred years in the making. But now, the cost of decentralized power in the form of solar, wind, biomass and fuel cells is becoming comparable to fossil fuels, so the pendulum has started to swing in the other direction. Progressive cities such as Austin, Texas, states such as California and Hawaii and even the US Federal government are actively supporting the use of home based solar panels, wind power, bioenergy and other forms of distributed energy sources. Solar panels may not just power lights and air-conditioning, but can also pump water, condense atmospheric moisture for drinking or growing fruits and vegetables. Once you add recycling of waste in a manner that produces energy (and or fertilizers), a more comprehensive, decentralized ecosystem connecting electricity, drinking water, irrigation, reuse of waste starts to come into place. This energy ecosystem is what will become progressively more significant in the decades to come, tied as it is to local empowerment, civic pride and ownership.
Finally, there is the environmental aspect. The subject of global warming, contamination of groundwater by fracking chemicals, and tremors caused by pumping fluids at very high pressure into the ground to fracture rock formations and produce oil and gas is fraught with emotions on all sides. It is not my intent to add my views to the vocal debate around the environmental impact of our energy policies. Rather, it is to point out that science is never about absolute certainty. It was, and always has been about progressively increasingly likelihood that a given hypothesis is either true or false. If certitude became the precondition for action, society would be paralyzed. Can we afford to ignore some many warning signs that pumping more and more carbon diode, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals and heat into the environment is not a smart idea?
So what does this mean for us as individuals and society? Firstly, we need to start educating ourselves about the various energy options. Next, we must chart a course that not just expedient for today, but has the best chance of sustainability a hundred years from now. Through personal choices and public policy, we must nuture the energy ecosystem. Finally, for many poor communities and nations suffering from scarcity of capital, donor fatigue, mounting national debt or economic policies that make basic necessities inaccessible for too many people, distributed energy models and grass-root level solutions are the only practical way forward.
So, what part do you want to play in the energy eco-system of the future?