Energy is central to our way of life. It powers the economy and every single aspect of our lives. An energy-poor future is unimaginable. It is therefore vital that the future of energy is secure, and meets our needs and desires. What will our energy future look like? What could it look like?
Unfortunately, the energy debate has become polarized and unproductive. More column inches seem devoted to glorifying or demonizing particular forms of energy than in standing back and evaluating what we want our energy future to look like and working out how we get there.
What is required for a “successful” energy future? I suggest that most of us can agree on a list of important requirements. We would like an energy system that is clean and non-polluting, and that has no adverse effects on our health; one that is available and reliable; one that gives individuals and communities security and “independence”; and one that is affordable for all. Our current energy system has evolved and improved over many decades and centuries. How do we continue to evolve the system so that it meets these requirements well into the future?
The Air We Breathe
In cities such as Beijing and Delhi, pollution issues are still overwhelming. In the so-called developed world, we have made great strides forward in reducing the harmful pollution emitted by transport systems and energy sources. But we are still a long way from breathing healthy air and reducing harmful emissions. Developing non-polluting energy sources such as wind and solar energy, improving on electric car technology, and finding cleaner and more efficient methods of public transport all provide opportunities to reduce the damage.
Reliability and Independence
Our complex, centralized, aging energy system is becoming unstable. It is not resilient. Storms or other major events leave millions of people without energy (and without gas for their cars) for prolonged periods of time. Power outages are becoming the new normal; in the US, 41.8 million people were affected in 2011, compared to 25 million in 2008.
While investment to upgrade our energy grid is essential, we can also work toward partial decentralization of the system. Both at the community and the individual level, we see increasing investment in homes and commercial buildings that both reduce energy consumption and generate their own energy through the installation of renewable energy sources. This gives communities and individuals more energy independence and makes energy supply less unreliable. It also reduces energy costs and—through the use of feed-in tariffs—allows people to earn money by selling energy to the grid.
The use of oil and gas currently provides the lowest-cost form of energy—though some would dispute this statement, as it depends on what is included in the assessment of “cost.” But these are finite resources that will inevitably become scarcer and therefore more expensive. While we can argue over the time frame of such scarcity, it is inevitable. A move toward non-finite energy sources will have to happen at some stage—and, with such a complex system, it will take a very long time to achieve. The debate is not over direction, but over the pace and method. Some argue that large government subsidies will achieve transformation. Others insist that the changeover should begin only when the price of renewable energy falls to match or beat the prices of oil and gas.
Fortunately, we are starting to see the potential for acceleration. With technological innovation, prices for clean, sustainable energy are starting to approximate those of traditional sources. Meanwhile, new financing options are starting to emerge that will fund investment in more sustainable forms of energy generation getting us past government subsidy as the only viable option.
Who Will Take Future Leadership?
Over time, we will inevitably see a move towards a cleaner, more resilient, energy mix that does not depend exclusively on finite resources, is less polluting and damaging to our health, and gives individuals and communities more energy independence. The debate is no longer about strategic direction, but rather about pace and approach. The shift will be gradual, and will require continued technological, financial, and policy innovation. Countries that invest most in these new systems will gain the economic benefits of technological leadership. Today, the US position is reminiscent of the early days of mobile telecommunications when Europe led the field in technology, standards, and products. Companies like Apple, Google, and Cisco have now powered the US ahead in communications. Will that happen in the field of new energy technologies? It remains to be seen.
Joseph Zammit-Lucia will discuss our energy future during the “Beyond Rhetoric” program on WVUD 91.3FM on March 5th at 6:30 pm EST. Live broadcast and a subsequent podcast will be available on the WVUD website.