By National Geographic Maps | Published January 30, 2012
Since the Industrial Revolution, societies the world over have steadily increased their demand for energy. In the last half-century, that demand has exploded. So how are we going to keep up?
In the last 20 years alone, the world’s energy use has increased 45 percent; the vast majority of that growth was fueled, literally, by oil, gas, and coal. Despite a slow economy, 2011 was a record year for energy consumption, and there’s no reason to think 2012 will be any different.
The response has been as straightforward as an Economics 101 graph: Demand is met with increased supply. We’ve gone nearly everywhere to get the fossil fuels we need, from war zones to the bottom of the ocean and tar sands. But the reality is that oil and gas are limited commodities, and not just because we might run out of them in a century or two.
Burning fossil fuels for energy releases the carbon trapped inside millions of years ago. If we don’t slow, halt, or even reverse the process, the dramatic increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 50 years has the potential to wreak havoc on the planet’s climate.
(Related: "Renewable energy capacity")
Charting the way forward
That means the future of energy can’t look like the past. As we hurtle into the 21st century, humanity has to consider two paths forward: More, and less.
The former is familiar. From solar panels to deep-ocean drilling, businesses, engineers, and scientists are hard at work figuring out ways to improve and perfect energy generation. The aim is to increase energy supplies while minimizing the collateral damage to the environment, all the while feeding the world’s insatiable – and, so far, growing – demand for power.
The fundamentals are already here. In some European countries, wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy provided more than 20 percent of the total energy supply in 2011. (In a few countries with major dams, the electricity provided by hydroelectric power far exceeded that.) As the need for renewable energy becomes more clear, countries are giving inventors and investors reasons to build wind farms and install solar panels; we can expect steady improvements in yield and efficiency as time goes on.
To tie all this together, the world needs smart grids. The technology we have now is a start: Smart meters wired to give home and business owners instant feedback on when and how they’re using electricity while giving power companies a way to estimate power usage ahead of time.
The next step will be hooking smart meters to each other and back to the power company -- thus letting people use their electric cars as batteries, the solar panels on their roofs to power homes two towns over, and helping power companies handle the unpredictable surges of renewables like wind and solar. Power lines that reach across national borders and link geographic regions will also play a critical role.
(Related: "Renewables require tough choices")
Other possibilities may sound like science fiction. Installing millions of solar panels in the Sahara Desert to trap the sun’s energy, then pipe it across the Mediterranean to Europe? Fueling cars with clean-burning hydrogen instead of gasoline? Injecting greenhouse gases deep into the Earth’s crust to keep them out of the atmosphere? These ideas are already on the drawing board, or even in the early phases of experimentation – and given the exponential speeds with which technology advances these days, it would be unwise to dismiss them too soon.
Adjusting the way we live
The second path is as important as the first, but much harder to follow. The simple reality is this: As a civilization, we need to use less energy.
In some ways, learning to use less is the bigger challenge. Humans are inclined to believe in our own ingenuity. It’s easier to sit back and hope for one big fix than start to take the many small steps that might improve things in the short term.
Yet the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become energy independent is energy conservation. Environmentalist Amory Lovins coined the term “negawatts” in 1989; more than 20 years later, it’s still true that not using a kilowatt of energy is cheaper than building the capacity for additional megawatts, green or otherwise.
Even those small steps aren’t so small. Dramatic decreases in energy consumption will require changing our lifestyles. An emphasis on efficiency and conservation will be a part of any future energy reality. That means using less electricity, making do with smaller cars or no cars at all, and even changing our diets.
Reducing the amount of meat we eat, for example, is a significant way to save energy. Feed for livestock uses lots of land that could be used to grow grain for humans or biomass for renewable energy generation. Other forms of low-impact food production might include urban gardens and eating organic, seasonal, or sustainably grown food. We may also need to pay more attention to the energy it takes to fly and truck produce from around the world to our local grocery stores.
(Related: "Coaxing clean energy from algae")
Other shifts are less obvious, but equally important. While the last 50 years marked the rise of the suburb, in the last decade demographers have noticed a move back to the city. The change is a good sign: Thanks to things like more efficient living quarters and access to public transport, city dwellers consume less energy than their suburban counterparts.
If the past is any guide, there will be changes we can’t foresee. Our future energy reality is this: We are not limited by our resources or capacity, but by our ingenuity, by our economic system, and by our will to make a more sustainable future happen.