by Rob Elmore (Twitter: @RobElmore)
After the recent – and excellent – VERGE conference in San Francisco (see VERGE-day-1 and VERGE-day-2), I came up with a short phrase to describe the energy-related advances that I have been researching for a number of months: “Next Generation Energy Systems.”
Here I want to lay out the thinking behind that phrase – and share some relevant links that focus on creating a positive future for Earth.
At the most basic level, it is easy to say why “Next” is in this phrase: Given clear scientific consensus about human impacts on climate systems (see http://buswk.co/PIUzUl), our energy status quo is unsustainable. So we need to ask: “What’s next?”
One implication of the word “Generation,” of course, is alternative, sustainable generation of energy. This includes wind – both small- and large-scale – and solar, whether rooftop-scale decentralized or large and centralized (see http://buff.ly/YssB1y and http://buff.ly/SQ0uDV). In addition, there are other energy generation technologies like geothermal heat pumps that are advancing in both small- and large-scale capabilities (see http://clmpr.gs/SSdmrU), and newer technologies such as landfill gas to energy (LFGTE) facilities (see http://buff.ly/SmUMtb).
In addition, “Generation” in this phrase also takes on the meaning “Next Generation”: emerging improvements to established sustainable energy technologies as well as novel new “possibilities.” This includes both technologies in the pre-development “pipeline” and those already in development, sometimes with the support of agencies like DOE ARPA-E (see http://buff.ly/YvQ5mA and http://buff.ly/V77Q5a), or undertaken by private firms or foundations. “Next Generation” also includes “speculative” new technologies like “artificial leaf” replication of the photosynthesis energy-from-sunlight extraction processes (see http://buff.ly/Yki2Oh).
“Energy” is easy, right? It includes electricity from wind, solar, and other sources for power lines throughout the Earth, plus non-food-source biofuels for vehicles, etc.
Indeed, it is true that ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution we have been advancing the production of energy that can do human-centered work (beyond fire for cooking) – starting with wood and coal, and evolving to our modern worldwide addiction to oil. Today’s energy use is primarily focused on use of electricity for in-place applications – such as generating light, powering machines and electronic equipment and communication networks, and heating and cooling – and on oil and its “cousin” natural gas both for in-place heating and for transportation via the internal combustion engine.
The other way to look at energy production, however, is in terms of the opportunity to produce less because we use less: the emerging focus on efficiency in energy use. One kind of advance in energy efficiency is the use of information technology for energy management in order to reduce energy use within buildings (see http://buff.ly/TWMwRm and http://buff.ly/SmXm25).
Here’s where “the rubber meets the road” in the phrase “Next Generation Energy Systems.”
The production and use of energy is not isolated, it scales as an integrated set of systems: this includes both “looking in” at how individual humans live within our households and communities, and “looking out” to our Sun-and-Earth system of daily solar energy input, to total human energy production and use, and to human impacts on climate systems – climate change and global warming.
As mentioned earlier, a systems approach to energy efficiency can work to minimize the need for energy generation (see http://buff.ly/SB42fH). This includes the thinking pioneered by the Rocky Mountain Institute (see @RockyMtnInst) years ago regarding the “Negawatt” (see http://buff.ly/VbDOgK): focusing through and beyond efficiency, in order to radically reduce energy use in everyday life. One important focus is finding high-leverage points for new efficiencies in how our industrial-production operations use energy (see http://buff.ly/Vmvmvp).
A systems approach to energy also calls for radical redesign of urban energy use, both retrofitting existing cities (see http://grn.bz/YgKKNk) and planning for and building new city centers (see http://buff.ly/TU6EDw) – as well as systematically reworking and expanding urban complexes to accommodate a whole-Earth population expected to crest at roughly 9 billion (see ). This calls for radical redesign of cities and all their energy-using systems, such as stopping the energy waste “built in” to most buildings’ air conditioning systems. This kind of city redesign can be approached both by retrofitting old buildings and by designing new buildings to minimize needs for cooling, as well as by landscaping cities and their rooftops to minimize heat buildup (see ).
Also critical are new systems for distributing energy, broadly referred to as “smart grids” (see http://j.mp/TkiKEV). Smart grids are focused both on using information technology to refine the existing centralized electrical grid system, as well as to enable radically decentralized local/regional smart grids with vastly improved resilience in the face of storms and other disruptions (see http://buff.ly/12nRmeW).
Modern agriculture is also a high-impact energy-use system, in need of radical reconfiguration (see http://buff.ly/VmsMoY), perhaps including urban “vertical farms” (see http://buff.ly/Tg56U6).
One way to look at fossil fuel, such as petroleum, is as an energy storage system: energy was derived from sunlight captured and stored by fossil-era plants millions of years ago, and it is extracted and stored today in forms such as crude oil and gasoline which can be transported to points of refining and end-use. Electricity, on the other hand, is generated and fed into the traditional electrical grid from central sources only as needed to meet real-time demand. Perhaps energy storage next could advance to enable what we might call “virtual storage” of electricity using highly decentralized hydrogen/fuel-cell-based systems tied directly to localized wind-and-solar-energy production installations, as proposed by Jeremy Rifkin (see http://www.foet.org/ongoing/hydrogen-economy.html).
Finally, we will need new financial systems to enable the wide-ranging investments required to create Next Generation Energy Systems. One well-established new financial system of this kind is the German example of implementing Feed-In-Tariffs that are made available to financially reward any individual or organization that implements wind or solar generation (see http://buff.ly/W7tHz5). An example that would require a change in U.S. tax law would be to enable master limited partnership investment in renewable energy, as it is now enabled for petroleum investment (see http:/buff.ly/QkMUMa). And as of this writing (December 2012) we are starting to see a possible U.S. political-and-business consensus emerge on the need to put a price on carbon production / carbon emissions in order to achieve replacement of carbon-based fuels (see and ) – and thus to help speed “Next Generation Energy Systems” innovation.
Rob Elmore is working toward a positive future for Earth by researching and publishing advances in “Next Generation Energy Systems.” Such advances – each with a background link like those above – are posted several times daily on Twitter (to access the archive, follow this link or web-search: Twitter @RobElmore). Rob is an expert technology solutions marketing writer working as a project contractor. Phone (U.S.) 831-818-2316 to discuss your writing-project needs.