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17 wildcards that will impact the future of electricity

The interplay between emerging technology and social acceptance will make the energy industry a truly dicey market


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The future of electricity can best be broken into four fundamental categories – power generation, power distribution, electric storage, and changes in demand.

After looking at the charts above of some of today’s most important trends, it was easy to uncover a few emerging trends that analysts haven’t been considering.

While some of these may only represent a miniscule probability over the next few years, the interplay between emerging technology and social acceptance, coupled with an exponential growth curve or two inserted into the mix, will make the energy industry a truly dicey market to predict over the next 2-3 decades.

Power Generation

  1. Solar shingles, solar roofs, and Powerwalls – Internal projections show Tesla scaling its roof installations to 1 million per year by 2022. That’s about 20 percent of all roof replacements in the U.S. and 5% globally. With solar shingles and whole-house batteries (Powerwalls) getting cheaper over time, this will be a fascinating “scaling-up industry” to watch over the next couple decades.
  2. 3D printed solar houses – Contour crafting is a large-scale form of 3D printing used in the construction industry. As the technology improves, contour crafting will not only print the structure, but also the wiring, plumbing, bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets, insulation and roofing. It’s only a matter of time before we will see solar cells printed into the roofs and sides of buildings as well.
  3. Space-based power stations – After Japan’s Fukushima disaster occurred in 2011, an in-depth review of possible options concluded their most viable long-term strategy would be to focus on spaced-based power systems. Japan now has a 25-year plan to build the world’s first 1-gigawatt power plant in space.
  4. Atmospheric energy harvesting - lightning - Capturing the energy of a lightning bolt has been achieved on a small scale in laboratories, but no one has been successful at scaling it up. It only takes one mistake so not a lot of people playing in this space. While still theoretical, many think it will soon be possible, and the ultimate cool job of the future will be to work on a lightning farm.
  5. Thorium-based nuclear power – When it comes to nuclear power, thorium offers several potential advantages over uranium. It’s more plentiful, superior fuel properties, and reduced amounts of nuclear waste. It also has far lower weaponization potential. With research and experimentation already happening in several countries, thorium power has massive potential. As example, India is projecting it can meet as much as 30% of its electrical demands through thorium by 2050.       Power Distribution
  6. Superconductor graphene power linesMy recent column on developing the “world’s first graphene super-conductor power grid“ describes how a superconductor power line will dramatically alter line loss, demand loads, and efficiencies throughout the electric usage spectrum. In my mind, it’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when.”
  7. Home batteries replaced by drones – Once drones are equipped to fly to remote buildings, dock with their battery stations, and perform a fully automated 2-minute replacement, our need to live in a wire-connected world will quickly diminish.
  8. Artificial intelligence and smart utilities – While still in development, A.I. will soon be able to use predictive algorithms to balance grids, anticipate failures, detect hacks, and precisely route power to where it is needed most. These smart systems will soon calculate precise details of every user, analyze a location’s supply and demand behavior, and store or release energy as needed to keep the grid balanced.                                                                                                                      Electric Storage
  9. Large-scale energy storage There are dozens of methods for storing energy on a large scale including everything from supercapacitors, to flywheels, liquid metal batteries, superconducting magnetic energy storage, grid-oriented batteries, and heat fusion. As battery prices continue to fall, utilities and policymakers are increasingly looking at storage as an alternative to traditional peaking generation.
  10. Explosion of micro-grids – The micro-grid advantage can best be summed up in their freedom to experiment with new forms of energy generation, distribution, and storage. With national grids posing a serious security risk, the proliferation of micro-grids is already underway. Energy derived from solar, tidal, and wind sources are constantly shifting along with time of day, moon phase, season, and random factors such as the weather. For this reason, large-scale energy storage is most likely to find a home on experimental micro-grids.                                                           Changes in Demand
  11. Electric agricultureGoing beyond a farmer’s electric cars are everything from electric tractors, to electric trucks, combines, augers, swathers, bailers, sprayers, and robotic harvesters. The electric version of virtually every piece of ag equipment is already in the planning and development stages.
  12. Electric shipping industry – Cargo ships represent some of the most polluting vehicles on the planet. There will be huge pressure for them to reduce the amount of sludge they dump into the ocean and electric ships are far less disturbing to marine life. However, once electric ships are in use, recharging an entire cargo ship will be no small feat.
  13. Electric airline industry – The airline industry is also hugely polluting and will also be pressured to clean up its act. Since airplanes are very weight-sensitive, there will need to be a number of advancements in battery technology before this becomes feasible on a broad scale
  14. Electric drone explosion – We’ve already seen massive growth in the drone markets, but over time, the transition from fossil-fuel engines to electric will have a profound affect on the electrical power needs of the emerging drone industry. We will see the first billion drones in the world sometime between 2030-2032.
  15. Surge in off-grid living – The recent surge in interest around sustainable homes, ecocapsules, backyard shedquarters, shipping container homes, and low-impact lifestyles are all driving us towards something that can best be described as “simpler living.” There will always be people who love surrounding themselves with the opulence of their own wealth, but the general trend is in the other direction. Simple, more manageable lives that give us the opportunity to experience life in a more symbiotic fashion.
  16. Disposable houses – 3D printed houses will open the door to low cost structures designed as temporary or disposable houses. In many situations we will move past the “collapsible and movable” to the “grindable and re-printable.” These types of structures will also be off-grid and self-reliant, paving the way towards nomadic lifestyles that leave tiny environmental footprints. 
  17. Tube transportation – With an explosion of attention being directed towards tube transportation systems like Hyperloop and ET3, it now seems inevitable that tube transportation infrastructure will be constructed in virtually every country on the planet. This will quickly become the largest infrastructure project in all history, and our ability to manage the power demands for this new form of transportation will become a critical factor in its development.

Final Thoughts

The power industry has already entered a state of disruption, but is ripe for much more. Today’s politics will be a distant memory two to three decades from now.

The list above is merely a starting point for those wanting to research the possibilities ahead.

In much of the world, electricity demand is still growing. In China, per-capita electricity use has more than quadrupled since 1999. Still, most other developed countries have experienced a plateauing or decline in electricity use similar to that in the U.S. over the past decade.

More than 80 percent of our energy today comes from burning fossil fuels, which is both harmful to our environment and unsustainable.

At the same time, wind and solar have proven to be the lowest cost form of electric power generation across a majority of the U.S., even without subsidies. Renewables are already at grid parity and will continue to drop in price.

Electric power will endure to be a battleground industry for decades to come. Our shifting base of technology, startups, lifestyles, culture, and politics will continue to make this a highly unpredictable landscape for the foreseeable future. 

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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