With this journal now beyond its eighth birthday, one use of it that I’ve occasionally enjoyed indulging in at the expense of my twos of readers is posting thoughts about what seems important in technology, politics, or whatever; it’s fun to look back a few years later to see how trends played out versus what might have been expected at the time. For those who are bored to death by such posts, head immediately to Lolcats to avoid a geeky trend analysis.
The dotcom wave crested nine years ago, and since then it has seemed more and more likely that the next boom would be led by energy and conservation technologies. Dotcom disrupted markets by introducing new ways to do traditional tasks faster and more efficiently, offering huge value for those who adopted the new technologies. With new energy developments on the horizon offering a similar value proposition, it seems that another burst of change is inevitable. That said, here are a few specific technologies that seem like they will end up being interesting and important with respect to energy and conservation. The comments link is available should anyone else care to throw out their own thoughts.
While there is some attention still being given to solar cars, hydrogen cars, and hybrids, electric cars look more and more like they will be the primary automotive technology in the future. Battery storage is rapidly improving, and if trends hold then in another 5-10 years cars could be on the roads with expected ranges of 400-600 miles per charge. More importantly, however, is that electric cars make better sense from a technology standpoint than hybrids or internal combustion engines – the motors are more powerful and more efficient, and the supporting systems are simpler. An electric car doesn’t need oil changes, doesn’t have an exhaust system, has simpler cooling needs, etc. As the range issues are addressed and the cost of battery packs come down, it’s very tough to imagine anyone choosing oil changes, gas stations, and a $600 maintenance charge every 30,000 miles to something that they can just plug in at night. I’m obviously heavily influenced by JB on this issue, but while I’m not convinced Tesla will lead this trend I’m fairly certain that it’s one that’s coming in a big way.
Similarly, as solar panel efficiencies are improving it is becoming cost-effective for greater numbers of people to install them. While for most people the allure of solar panels is currently that they’re a “green” option, as soon as the economics of solar panels offer a cost advantage over grid power it’s tough to imagine that there wouldn’t be a rush for the mass market to install them; companies like Solar City are already pushing a sales message that is primarily based on economics rather than environmentalism. With current rates of improvement, the economic argument should be a HUGE selling point in places like Arizona and Southern California within the next several years. Should home generation become more prevalent, it is also conceivable that the need for new power plants might then be lower than current projections.
This may be overly optimistic, but a side effect of a move to electric vehicles and solar panels would be less air pollution and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Any such benefits would obviously take time to kick in as old technologies were slowly phased out, but if (for example) 10% of vehicles are electric by 2015, and 30% are electric by 2020, air quality improvements should follow. This optimistic view isn’t an argument against trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traditional sources, but it does give some hope that even in the absence of legislative action there may still be some chance of avoiding the worst predicted effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Oil production rises each year to meet increased demand, but at some point there simply won’t be enough oil that can be extracted from the ground for that trend to continue. The commonly held assumption is that demand will continue to rise while supply will remain stable, causing a massive shock to economies and industrial systems. However, as electric vehicle technology improves it would seem that there will, for the first time, be a viable alternative for the most common use of oil. Since people are driven by economic factors, given the choice between a $20,000 vehicle that runs on $5.00 – $7.00 a gallon fuel, or a $30,000 vehicle that can be plugged in, fears over a depression brought about by peak oil may actually be replaced by a mini economic boom as replacement technologies are adopted.
It’s tough to tell if today’s political environment is an anomaly or not, but at least in the US there is a dearth of sensible long-term planning as candidates look to quick-wins and uncontroversial decisions. Currently candidates in several states are campaigning against transportation projects that could produce huge long-term benefits, albeit at short-term cost. In California, a much-needed high-speed rail line is opposed by the current Republican gubernatorial candidate and will at best be delayed by myriad lawsuits from cities impacted by the proposed rail route, and at worst will end up canceled.
With so many obstacles to major changes to the existing transportation system, it seems that incremental approaches implemented at the local level are the only options to looming congestion nightmares. New York and several other cities already have implemented small-scale solutions, such as systems that allow buses to manage traffic lights to speed up bus routes. It seems logical that such “smart” traffic lights will be implemented elsewhere to optimize traffic flows. Similarly, cities will probably begin looking more at options like congestion pricing, reversible lanes, and better use of real-time traffic data for routing. While it would be great to think that large mass-transit projects will play a bigger role, it’s tough to see how such projects will be implemented, meaning that small-scale projects are likely to be the main area of growth.
While more efficient air and space travel could enable a number of new developments, this area sadly doesn’t seem poised for huge advances. With private companies like SpaceX now capable of launching payloads for a fraction of traditional costs it’s possible that additional uses for space will open up, but technology is still probably twenty years away from a cost point where really exciting changes could take place. Similarly, with more fuel efficient airplane technologies such as the Boeing 787 launching, air travel should become more pleasant, but revolutionary changes like blended wing body planes or hypersonic transports look like they’re still 30 years away from becoming a day-to-day reality.
Water is going to become a bigger and bigger issue; if desalination doesn’t become a more prominent option then the world will face severe shortages. Assuming the energy requirements for desalination decrease and available fresh water supplies continue to be used up, the oceans should soon become a big part of the municipal water plan.
Smart grid technology is already being put in place to allow variable pricing of electricity, which should cause users to shift electricity usage and thus decrease the need for new power plants. The idea is that if electricity is more expensive when demand is high then people will defer usage until prices decrease; it’s less sensible to run the dish washer at mid-day if you can do so for half the price in the evening.
Biofuels will continue to gain attention, particularly things like cellulosic ethanol and algae fuel, but simpler technologies like electric motors, wind power, and traditional power sources may prevent them from ever being widespread. Instead, something like algae fuel production may be most useful as a way for large industrial facilities to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously creating a commercially valuable by-product.