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25th Anniversary series: What’s the future for energy?

August 26, 2015

The ways in which we generate and use energy are changing radically. Over the next 25 years, we can expect the energy landscape to look very different. There are major changes in:

  • Energy generation: fossil fuels, nuclear, renewable including some weird and wonderful ideas
  • Energy distribution: micro-generation affects grid structure
  • Storage: battery technology is undergoing a revolution

How will this all play out? What are the economics going to look like? What are the implications for governments, commerce and individuals? Will global geo-politics be completely re-shaped?


The technology road-map of energy generation is still very open.

Fossil fuels: Coal burning is falling to all-time lows, in China and in the UK; a trend being reinforced by campaigns such as “Leave it in the ground” arguing that this is an essential factor in holding back climate change. On the other hand shale gas/fracking is offering much cheaper fuel with the added benefit of increased fuel security. Fossil fuel prices are stagnant – a major deviation from historic trends.

Nuclear: nuclear reactors remain part of many countries’ energy maps, though the Fukushima disaster led to scrapping of plans in Japan and Germany. Many still argue that nuclear power is an essential factor in reducing carbon emissions, being more economical than many renewable options. Nuclear fusion remains some way off, though in France the ITER project is exploring its feasibility.

Renewables overall: Renewable sources of power are no longer a speculative way of meeting energy demand. Half of new electricity sources are renewable and they supply 15% of UK electricity, up 100% between 2010 and 2013. Barak Obama has announced a new plan for the US energy to cut greenhouse gas emissions from US power stations by nearly a third within 15 years. The measures will place significant emphasis on wind and solar power and other renewable energy sources. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, said she would defend the plan – she herself previously announced that if elected she will increase US use of renewable energy, pledging to install more than half a billion solar panels within four years, a 700% increase from current levels.

Solar in particular is beginning to be a game-changer – solar photovoltaic cell costs continue to fall substantially. Other new solar generation technologies are also emerging which could make every surface a solar generator:

  • Perovskite solar cells could be used in principle to make semi-transparent solar cells relatively cheaply in large rolls enabling them to be applied to many built surfaces, converting whole buildings into solar panels
  • The Solar Roadways project paves highways with solar cells. The roads themselves could power the roadside charging stations for electric vehicles. Equivalent experiments for trains include the two-mile solar train tunnel on the Paris-to-Amsterdam high-speed rail line, in operation since 2011. Bikers in South Korea enjoy protection from sun and rain in a PVC-roofed bike lane that runs 20 miles from Sejong to Daejeon; Sejong is planning to expand that to a 217-mile network around the city.
  • At the scale of a building, Solar Ivy is the siding equivalent of solar roadways: a net of ‘artificial ivy’ whose leaves are solar cells that blow in the wind and as they move trigger piezoelectric energy harvesting.
  • Innovations in transparent solar concentrators suggest that every window in every building could effectively generate energy – even at low efficiencies, the potential for massive deployment could create practical benefits.

Wind power: In the UK, onshore turbines remain controversial and subsidies are being removed, but the economics are improving rapidly. Despite the large growth in offshore wind farms, this method of energy generation is still much more expensive than on-shore wind. In the US, NASA is experimenting with flying windfarms: high-altitude, nano-tube cable tethered, above-ground wind farms.

Hydrogen fuel cells: the Japanese government in particular is supporting the development of hydrogen fuel cells as a transport energy solution – the 2020 Olympic village will be hydrogen powered.

Tidal power: Swedish company Minesto is working closely with the Welsh government and Bangor University a scheme to build 25 underwater turbines that produce electricity from tidal energy off Anglesey. The 10MW kite-turbine tidal scheme will power 8000 homes. Tidal Lagoon Power is planning 6 lagoons, the first of which is in Swansea, and anticipates that 8% of the UK’s power requirements could be met in this way.

Biofuels: despite concerns about the implications for food supply, a wide range of biofuel projects are exploring different options: aviation biofuel from sugarcane waste, algal oil, generating hydrogen using enzymes on maize stalks and other waste products, bacteria that can produce hydrogen from sugars under saline and alkaline conditions.

Weird and wonderful: piezoelectric fabrics could generate electricity from your body movements; a new thermo-electric material called Power Felt uses your body heat.

Low-power electronic chips can themselves harvest power from a variety of sources – sunlight, heat, or environmental vibrations. New wireless devices can generate their own operating energy from the ambient radio, TV and WiFi waves. “Soundscrapers” can pick up city noise (vibrations), which is converted into kinetic energy and then electricity, up to 150 megawatts of energy in a densely populated city – and also reduce noise pollution!

Distribution and storage

The current mindset for considering national energy supply is still large-scale and centralized, but many of the above new generation opportunities require a different approach. Micro-generation will require changes to the structure of the Grid, and embedded very small-scale energy generators and harvesters in everything, creating the possibility of massively distributed energy generation – the “energy internet”. This could have a major impact on the resilience of the current grid.

Many renewables are also intermittent sources of energy. This creates a need for improved energy storage technologies, of which batteries are the most promising. Tesla in particular has focused on developing batteries to power homes and businesses – the Tesla Powerwall.

Other developments are competing with lithium-ion batteries: rapid charging dual carbon batteries (ie with both the anode and the cathode made of carbon); semi-liquid batteries; Lithium-Sulphur batteries with energy density five times that of lithium-ion; ultrafast charging aluminium-ion batteries.

How does this play out?

Solar photovoltaic cell costs continue to fall substantially, and economies of scale are driving down the cost of onshore wind turbines. Already, the cost of renewable energy has reached grid parity in some parts of the world, and this trend is expected to continue in the long term. The Economist magazine foresees an era of “global energy deflation”  With zero marginal cost of production, increased deployment of renewables will have two distinct effects: average prices of electricity will fall, and become much more variable.

Energy prices, especially of energy dense fossil fuels, are currently relatively cheap. This may last for another decade. But even if the cost of fossil fuels remains low, the impetus to decarbonise by leaving those fuels in the ground is growing.

Energy security has become a concern of many Western countries. Successful deployment of renewables would lead to less dependence on fossil fuels and on the countries which supply the world’s oil.

Micro-generation seems likely to become more common and indeed the only likely way of powering the Internet of Things, which itself will transform many industries and societies.

Reduced greenhouse gas emissions are a possible optimistic outcome with the prospect of holding back seriously damaging climate change. But unforeseen outcomes could yet occur – cheaper energy will stimulate demand which could then cycle out of control leading to countries falling back on fossil fuels again.

Geo-politics: The ramifications of these developments for the geo-political landscape are many and sweeping – for instance the role of the Middle East as the US and Europe become less dependent on their carbon fuels, the ongoing impact on the Russian economy ——–

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

Written by SAMI Principal Huw Williams.

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