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Macro changes ahead – II

We use a mix of energy sources and use them in different ways. The graphic represents the status as of 2020 in the US. On the left hand side the various sources, on the right the usage sectors. At the bottom the conversion in electrical power before usage. Image credit: EIA

2. Energy

There is plenty of energy bathing the Planet, courtesy of our Sun. There is also energy stored in the geo-thermal activity and in radioactive material, although the one coming from the Sun is by far the greatest one. Hydro, wind, tides (Sun and Moon) are related to that primary source.

Hence the issue is not a lack of energy but the availability of energy in a form that is easy to use and harvested in an effective (economic) way. Coal and oil are good energy storage that took million of years to form and are now available at very low cost (because we developed and perfected the technology to harvest them and to use them effectively). Unfortunately, we have learnt that their extraction, and even more their usage, releases CO2 and other noxious substances in the atmosphere altering (warming) the climate.

The pressure (that is now turning into action) to decrease carbon emission is giving strength (and funds) to renewable. However, those renewable (wind and light) are not providing a continuous source and we have to use other sources to fill the gaps. This means mostly gas and nuclear. Gas is relatively scarce, hence more expensive than coal/oil (particularly so after its extraction via fracking has been stopped/decreased for undesirable side effects) and nuclear is still facing strong opposition by many people.

So this is the challenge. The graphic represents the main energy sources (in the US, but it can be used to get the general idea worldwide) and how these are used. Petroleum has the lion share in transportation (cars, trucks, ships, planes). The electrification of these vehicles will have to tap into electricity that in turns will need to be generated one way or another.  Industry is using 33% of petroleum and 41% of gas as energy sources today.

In the coming years the reduction of carbon emissions would call for a dramatic change in our sources. Industry could turn to hydrogen, but here again to produce hydrogen (we got plenty but in form of water, combined with oxygen and it takes energy to separate them) we need an energy source (that cannot be based on fossil fuel).

We have technology for this, but this technology, so far, is not delivering energy at the same price point of fossil fuel.

In the coming years we can expect:

  • an increase in energy cost at least for the next 5 years. As new clean sources will become available the cost will come down but it is unlikely to happen in this decade. There is also the issue that decreasing demand of fossil fuel will lead to a decreased price on the market stimulating companies (and Countries) to keep using them and forcing alternative sources to become more efficient to match the lower price.
  • a commitment by Governments to stimulate clean energy use (through subsidies and carbon fees), as well as investment in research to lower the price of clean energy
  • a concerted action by Governments to create a culture of carbon free in the consumer market (and more generally an enevironment conscious culture, affecting the use of plastic, focus on recycling…). This “culture” should make up for the increase in prices on the mass market. New businesses will be created but before they gain makes up for the loss it will take several years.

In this scenario we can expect technology to evolve in areas like:

  • increased efficiency in harvesting clean energy (solar, wind, tides…)
  • better ways to transport electrical power (allowing the production in remote areas and transport to the points of use) like UHVDC
  • electronic circuit evolution towards decreased power consumption and energy scavenging for very very low power applications (IoT)
  • development of clean nuclear power (thorium based reactors, fusion – this latter won’t be a reality in this decade for sure)
  • development of more effective energy storage
  • use of AI in smart grid, taking advantage of massive micro-generation

Notice that the changes in energy sources will have very significant geo-political impact and lead to other “difficult” issues.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.