Predicting Energy Systems
Very few topics are as complex and as important as the future energy mix of our civilization. Depending on who you ask, dependency upon fossil fuel is impossible to shake off, or renewables are going to take over at a breakneck pace. The reality is of course complex, and it is very hard to predict the future of energy.
In this article, we will look at our current situation, see the few possible scenarios, and more importantly, what economic or technological changes will make one scenario more likely to happen than the other.
Where We Are
If there is so far a pattern to our growing energy usage, it is that new energy sources tend to be added to our energy mix, rather than replacing the previous one.
For example, we are still using as much, if not more, biomass (mostly wood) than in the 1800s, before the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, coal consumption has mostly only increased over time, on which was added oil, gas, and then hydropower, nuclear, and renewables.
This might come as a surprise, considering how much progress in our electricity production renewables seemingly have made. This is due to multiple causes:
- China, the leader in renewables' new capacity and transition to EVs, is also the leader in coal power plant construction.
- Most of the primary energy consumption is not used to generate electricity. Instead, most of our energy consumption comes from mobility, heating, and industrial uses like steel production and petrochemicals (production of fertilizer, plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, etc.).
- Population growth and billions leaving extreme poverty meant growing energy consumption, with the cheapest available option often coal. As well as more meat consumption, air conditioning, cars, plane travel, etc.
- Globalization of the economy, leading to a lot more transportation of goods, including multiple back-and-forth movements of raw materials, semi-transformed parts, and final goods.
- Agriculture industrialization, increasing yields and reducing the required manpower, but also boosting consumption of fossil fuels and fertilizers.
For anybody concerned by climate change and carbon emissions, this can make a depressing outlook, with fossil fuels firmly entrenched in our global energy mix. But this is not truly the whole picture either.
The Ongoing Change
From barely a nice theory in 2016, electric cars (EVs) are now an exponentially growing part of global sales, with more than 10 million electric cars sold in 2022, or 14% of global sales, with China and Europe leading the way.
The share of renewable energy (hydro + solar + wind + geothermal) is also quickly growing. And while some countries have been high on this list for a long time, due to massive hydropower resources (like Norway. Brazil, or Canada), solar + wind is really where the change is happening.
A look on a country basis shows the clear inflection point in 2010 when renewables often more than doubled, usually entirely carried by the growth in solar and wind production. For example, China and Australia:
A massive driver of this change has been a steep decline in costs for renewables. Driven equally by technological innovation and scaling up industrial production, this has made renewables increasingly competitive. At least on paper, renewables seem now cheaper than fossil fuels (more on that below), as shown by the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency).
In the last few years, a strange situation started to emerge. The quickly declining costs of renewables have convinced quite a few people that fossil fuels would be going the way of the dodo birds anytime soon.
But in the last few years, a few macroeconomic shocks have put this idea into question. The war in Ukraine triggered massive inflation, and pushed countries like Germany to restart their reliance on coal.
And that same inflation has direly damaged the profitability of planned renewable projects. Massive offshore wind projects canceled, crashing stock price of solar and wind companies, this has been a painful period. You can read more about what happen in our article “The 2023 Renewable Energy Crash“.
Even EV sales are put into question, after the postponement or cancellation of EV strategy by major manufacturers, such as GM, Ford, or Honda.
One key issue that will need to be solved is energy storage. Wind and solar energy production is depending on the weather and can be temporally disconnected from the demand. This is an issue for an electric grid requiring “just-in-time” production and an instantenous perfect balance between production and demand.
There are plenty of possible alternatives, but the technologies are either just getting started, or have not been deployed at a massive scale soon enough. This leads to energy surplus in the day and/or summer, and shortage at night and/or winter.
The problem is not unsolvable but requires well-coordinated policies, and more investment in power grids.
And frankly, also admitting that the “real” costs of renewables should include the costs of energy storage. Renewables might not be just yet fully cheaper than fossil fuels, at least once they become a large part of the electric production of the country.
The Limits of Batteries
The concern about EV adoption staying on track is due to similar technological limitations. While the early adopters were fine with more upfront costs, lower range, or slower charging time than ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles, other buyers might not be. The shortage of lithium boosting the price of the white metal also caused some concerns.
Luckily, new battery technologies are coming soon, from Chinese Sodium-Ion batteries to solid-state batteries that should help reduce EV prices and cancel legitimate concerns like range anxiety or fire hazards.
Hard-To-Switch Energy Demand
And then, some energy consumption is simply hard to switch away from fossil fuels. For example, long-distance shipping still requires a very dense and liquid fuel to work. Flying also requires a very high energy density energy source, that batteries are for now unable to deliver. Most plastic production relies on oil, fertilizer on gas, and steel on coking coal.
Here too, solutions exist, but are somewhat immature technologies and far from being globally deployed.
Game Changer Technologies
The Likely Game Changers
Quite a few solutions are already at hand to help restart the growth of renewables and low-carbon technology.
Still controversial, nuclear energy is nevertheless a low-carbon technology that may be needed to bridge the gap toward a renewable-driven future.
Small Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) are another sector that recently suffered from bad news due to rising costs, linked to global inflation. But in any case, nuclear technology is undergoing a renaissance, with new safer designs looking at smaller reactors (SMRs and micro-reactors), or even new fuels like thorium. Meanwhile, China is building 24 new large nuclear reactors, and planning for a total of as many as 150 reactors.
Declining costs compared to fossil fuels are likely to stay a durable trend. This is especially true for solar, with innovations like thin-film solar cells or 3rd generation solar cells (amorphous silicon, organic polymers, or perovskite crystals).
Utility-scale battery projects will also help, with more than triple the current capacity by 2025.
Everybody working on battery technology knows that solid-sate batteries, not requiring the liquid electrolytes of the current lithium battery, will be a game changer. And many companies are talking about launching their own version of solid-state batteries as soon as 2026-2029. This includes QuantumScape (QS), CATL (300750.SZ), Toyota (TM), Panasonic (6752.T), LG (051910.KS), and Samsung SDI (006400.KS). While Tesla (TSLA) is working on its own alternative to solid-state batteries.
The Speculative Game Changer
Some other technologies are less mature, but even more promising and will likely be how we get our energy in 2040-2050 and onward.
A big concern with nuclear power plants is nuclear waste. Surgenerators (or “breeders”) can consume these nuclear wastes and turn them back into power & nuclear fuel. This could both make the available nuclear fuel virtually limitless, and reduce greatly the issue of nuclear wastes. A bonus is that this technology is not really new, as it was used by France until 1997, so it is only speculative due to the political difficulty surrounding nuclear power.
Producing solar energy from the orbit would solve at once all of solar energy's problems: no intermittency, no clouds, no declining production in winter. With space-based Internet suddenly a reality with Starlink, this is not as outlandish as it sounds.
It is something we investigated further in our article “From Sci-Fi to Sky-High: Are Orbiting Solar Panels a Bright Idea?”
A so far mostly neglected source of renewable energy, and able to provide baseload power 24/7 is geothermal energy. This is finally changing, with companies like Vulkan Energy (VUL.AX), Ormat Technologies (ORA), and Eavor. These companies, somewhat ironically, repurpose the advances in drilling and fracking made by the oil industry to tap into the heat sources of the Earth. (We covered Ormat in this article and Vulkan in this one).
Another option for synthetic fuel could be to leverage biology, and use microalgae to generate biofuels (see “Algal Biofuel: The Next Energy Revolution?”) or bio-fermenters to produce biogas & biomethane from waste organic matter.
These fuels could then be used in planes, ships, and other applications that require either very dense fuels or very high combustion temperatures (like steel making).
Fusion energy aims to create energy by fusing together light elements like hydrogen, re-creating on Earth the process that powers the Sun itself. With temperatures ranging from millions to hundreds of millions of degrees, this is an immense technological challenge.
It would also provide clean energy, producing neither carbon nor nuclear waste, with an unlimited supply of “fuel”, as hydrogen is the most abundant atom in the universe.
The largest fusion project is the international research consortium ITER, with many startups also pursuing the dream of nuclear fusion, including Helion, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion, TEA Technologies, ZAP Energy, and NEO Fusion (financed by Chinese EV maker Nio).
The Future Energy Mix(es)
While likely promising in the long run, we will mostly examine possible energy mixes without any of the “speculative game changers” discussed above, as we look at the horizon of 2040.
The EIA (Energy Information Administration) has released multiple scenarios, depending on economic growth and the adoption or not of low-carbon technology.
In most cases, energy use is expected to keep growing, with fossil fuels still making most of the world's energy by 2050. Now this is a projection if no laws change, and investments in energy stay in line with the current trend.
Business as usual
This is a depressing scenario for anyone paying attention to climate change. It assumes that coal, gas, and oil will stay for the next 2 decades the dominant force in our energy system, producing the bulk of our energy.
This is far from impossible, as illustrated by the recent return of Germany to coal, despite the country being widely viewed previously as a champion of renewables and the energy transition.
The High Tech Road
Another option is for our societies to embrace technological change when it comes to energy. This includes renewables, but also massively nuclear, likely both of the conventional and smaller types at once.
This is a scenario where fossil fuel power generation from fossil fuel is either priced out by better alternatives or outright banned by law.
It is also a scenario where EVs keep being adopted quickly, likely thanks to new battery technologies.
While nuclear produces baseload power and winter capacities, renewables can manage surplus production for liquid fuels to decarbonize flying, shipping, and heavy industry.
The Low Consumption Road
Considering the hunger for energy of the developing world, including not only China but South America, Africa, India, and Indonesia, this does not seem a very likely scenario.
Somehow, it would involve “choosing” true de-growth, and probably on average a decline in life standards, with especially less travel and international trade. Agriculture de-industrializes to some extent, industrial activity declines, and overall economies become a lot more local.
Such a scenario should most likely be envisioned in parallel to massive international tensions, war, or a global depression, explaining the sudden decrease in economic activities, as a voluntary choosing of lower production appears unlikely in both democratic and autocratic countries.
The Muddle-Through Scenario
This is a scenario where everything happens at once. Fossil fuels are on the slight decline, but not fully phased out. Coal is overall being phased out, but oil and gas not so much. Some countries bet on nuclear, others on renewables, other keep business as usual.
Electrification and decarbonization occur but at a slower-than-desired pace. Carbon emissions stay in that scenario much above the net zero scenario envisioned by the GIEC to keep global temperatures from rising too much.
This is not very different from the EIA scenarios mentioned above. Later on, carbon capture might be deployed to accelerate decarbonization and reverse some of the past emissions.
The Breakthrough Scenario
An energy generation breakthrough is made, allowing for abundant energy, and the solution can be quickly deployed all over the globe.
It could be a drastic decline of orbital solar infrastructure through a new space race between SpaceX and Chinese firms.
Or a massive success for ITER at launch in 2025-2026.
Or revolutionary new designs in solar and battery tech.
Such changes are by nature almost impossible to predict or quantify. But they should not be fully dismissed either.