What could our energy future look like?
The myriad of news articles regarding climate change may have left you feeling a little hopeless lately. Do not despair, Camilla Lian has you covered as she sheds some light on our potential energy future.
You may have noticed that we are now, more than ever, aware of the impact humans have had on our planet. Climate change has gone from a nice-and-easy pace to an exhausting sprint, and at the current rate, we are bound to collapse. The present exploitation of fossil fuels does not provide environmentally sustainable solutions to the global energy demand, and we are likely to see a global average temperature rise of between 2°C and 6°C by the end of the 21st century.
Ahead is an exciting future for the development of global energy systems. Researchers across the world are working on the pressing need for optimised solutions in all aspects of electricity production and management. A massive global shift in energy production and distribution is upon us, as even developing countries are currently looking towards low-emission technologies.
Most of you have probably heard of the Paris agreement that was made in 2016, where several countries vowed to keep the future global temperature rise below 2°C. With that, the countries involved have essentially committed to form policies that call for action in all aspects of global industries – from financial institutions to technological research to agriculture. For the average person, this change will likely seem slow at this point, but the growing sense of commitment is pushing towards action that will make a difference in the long-term.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and you may wonder – what will the world look like?
In a utopian dream world, we would immediately scrap all fossil fuels and move straight to renewable energy as soon as we realised that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions are destructive to our Earth, and I am sure a few of you have asked yourselves why that has not happened already. Most of you probably also enjoy the convenience of having a fridge to keep your food edible and electricity to charge your phone, and a failing grid network would take away both – unless you are one of few people who have already gone off the grid in the past few years.
Contemporary sources of renewable energy like solar and wind rely strongly on environmental conditions, fluctuating rapidly between high and low electricity production based on the level of sunlight and wind. This poses major challenges on the grid, because it requires a stable voltage to function. Luckily, many researchers across the world are working on developing Smart Grid systems that are designed to achieve appropriate power conditioning and control.
In addition to this, improved battery technology may be used for energy storage on days with high energy production that can be utilised on days with low energy production. This allows for improved stability in the energy output from future renewable power stations and progresses your potential for going off the grid.
To compete with existing electricity production systems, modern renewable technology needs to be at least comparable in energy conversion efficiency to be suitable for the current energy demand. That provides research challenges that need to be addressed to optimise the energy output, stability and longevity of newly developed technologies.
In the current early stages of the global energy transition, considerable research effort and investment will go towards reducing emissions from the current fossil fuel systems we already have – whether you like it or not – because 80% of our energy is supplied from fossil fuels, the global energy demand is increasing rapidly, and an immediate change would have massive consequences to the humans involved (some who, coincidentally, sit on most of the funds and influence necessary for change). This means quite a bit of money will be spent on carbon capture technology, and on improving the energy output, while decreasing the emissions from current fossil fuel power stations. At the same time, we will see solar and wind farms pop up here and there.
Eventually, more people will go off the grid and rely on location dependent energy sources like their own solar panels or heat pumps, including the use of batteries for energy storage where necessary. Some countries will depend on hydroelectricity for the majority of their energy supply, deriving electricity from the movement of water between dams, in rivers, waves, and from larger tidal systems.
Smaller, but significant contributions will involve actions like transitioning to electric vehicles and improving building construction to save energy (e.g. realising the importance of insulation). Furthermore, continuing research into alternative resources like hydrogen might affect future development (you could end up driving a water-spitting hydrogen car in a few decades).
In transitioning between energy production from fossil fuels to renewable energy production, nuclear power stations will take precedence in countries where renewable energy resources are either hard to come by or too costly to utilise for the nation in question. Regardless of our public perception related to potential issues with nuclear waste management and leakages, we will most likely have to accept that nuclear energy will assume a key role in slowing down global warming together with other renewable energy technologies.
Alright… There is a lot of change ahead of us, our doorstep is relatively crowded. However, the key message I want you to take away from this is that we are moving in a direction where there is no one solution to all our problems. The days where we could rely on fossil fuels to be our sole energy resource are gone. To mitigate rapid climate change, all potential sources of energy will need to be considered in each and every part of the world, which also means that educated people will be needed to work for change within a multitude of industries, areas and countries. This is where all of our brains can make a significant difference.
Who knows, maybe we could actually change the world?
To leave you on a less word-dense note, below is an image showing what the projected energy mix could look like for Australia to reach 100% renewable energy production by 2050. This is 1 of 139 similar country roadmaps created by a team from Stanford University, led by Professor Mark Jacobson, and published in the scientific journal Joule. To access the full roadmap for Australia, please click on the picture.