What might the near future look like? I’ve just come back from a few greenhouse gas mitigation and alternative energy conferences with my head buzzing, so here is at least my glimpse of part of it. . .
Well, the pressure is certainly on the energy infrastructure. Latest international Energy Agency forecasts show that to achieve an energy mix that might stabilize CO2 emissions there needs to be an increasing use of both renewables – particularly bioenergy – and nuclear power (even if renewables and nuclear grew exponentially, they will still remain a minor part of the overall energy mix because of the fossil thirst of countries like China and India – at least for this century). Research is powering ahead, and the number of patents is stacking up. The summary of how many of these plants needs to be built every year is a little bit frightening. The next twenty years will see the increasingly rapid implementation of this new generation of energy installations, from the small local scale right up to the big regional plants.
No matter how advanced electric vehicles become, there will still be a huge requirement for liquid transport fuels – there is no such thing as an electric plane or electric spaceship (or electric super-tanker for that matter). And in any case, unless electricity supply becomes much more efficient, then electric vehicles will never be as efficient as hybrids in terms of the whole emissions life cycle (coal based electricity into an electric car emits more CO2 than petroleum).
A LOT more of the Earth will be converted into cropland, further accelerating a steepening conversion of natural systems to agriculture that has been happening for a few centuries now. Much of this will be grown for energy production.
Third generation biosystems such as algae will expand rapidly over the next fifty years, converting sunlight into fuels without necessarily displacing arable land or competing with food crops – and there will be heaps of this. Hundreds of thousands of hectares, yielding everything from high-protein cattle feeds to bio-derived transport fuels. A drive through the countryside will feature not only the almost ubiquitous wind-turbines, but also the vivid green of broad-scale algae ponds or bioreactors marching into the distance. These will almost certainly be sited on marginal land – there will be too much need to preserve the highly productive land for other uses.
Building codes will tighten considerably as regulators realize the massive gains from building energy efficiency, and how much money they can save by reducing energy consumption rather than building new energy infrastructure. I suspect that as designs are optimized for energy efficiency, the tall buildings of the future are going to start looking a little the same – the way all modern cars follow the same optimized wind-tunnel designs.
This is just one slice of crystal-gazing – the part related to energy. I would be disappointed if I wasn’t wrong – after all, I’m still waiting for the aliens to give us viable fusion technology:)
Anyone else got any interesting crystal gazing? How about some punts on the coming revolution in medical technology? Cloning? Robotics? Artificial Intelligence? Is it really possible to replicate human sentience? Or is our grey-matter quantum computer and emotion vortex a one-of-a-kind natural achievement?