You don’t need to look very far to notice that the energy industry is going through one of its biggest shifts in decades. As the world faces the consequences of climate change, the global community starts to discuss what future energy sources are going to look like — and where they will come from.
Generally, the predictions point to a renewable yet uncertain future. As we see initiatives and inventions popping up here and there, more questions seem to arise. Will solar power systems become the next big thing? Are algae the future of energy? Is energy access going to be included in the discussions regarding energy sources?
The whole discussion goes beyond environmental issues, including politics, industries and technology. As renewable energy sources get more accessible, what will happen to oil-based economies? Will carbon regulations be enough to reduce our impact on the environment? Yes, there are plenty of questions. And the best way to answer them is by finding out which topics will lead the energy conversation in the coming years.
1. Solar power
Solar power has been around for a while. From households to large companies, we’re slowly noticing the pros and cons of this resource. Still, we don’t know how solar power will be used in the future. Predicting the future of solar-powered systems depends not only on the affordability of this source, but also on more specific issues. According to a CleanEnergy Authority article, the energy generation from solar panels in the United States, for example, will depend on how much the government will invest in this industry.
In Canada, however, provinces such as Alberta and the Northwest Territories are leading the solar power race with both governmental and private investments in renewable energy sources.
Whether in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, Nigeria or anywhere else in the world, the future of energy generation from solar panels is not limited to governmental incentives; it relies heavily on technology, research, affordability and creativity.
From such a combination, we can see many innovations starting to shape the future of the solar power industry. As reported by Ars Technica in the article “The future of solar power technology is bright,” solar power will become one of the most significant energy sources in the next decades. According to the publication, solar energy won’t be limited to panels. Instead, we can expect so see photovoltaic cells on many surfaces such as windows and car windshields.
Of course, the solar energy industry still needs to overcome some obstacles. Consumers frequently complain about storage issues and the costs of both installing and maintaining a solar-powered system.
The outlook is good, however, for solar power enthusiasts. As reported by Solar Feeds, panels have been performing better than expected and tend to be more resilient than we previously imagined.
In another article on the future of solar power, Green America shines a light on how solar energy systems will expand their residential coverage as storage technologies become better and more affordable.
2. Biomass energy
Biomass energy, or bioenergy, comes from bio-derived sources such as wood, hydrogen, gas, flammable alcohols, grains, garbage, bacteria and other organic masses. You must be wondering why such a rudimentary process is considered one of the top energy talks for the next years.
Well, in order to understand how biomass energy works, it’s important to know where it comes from, and its primary sources.
- Forestry residues
- Municipal solid waste
- Alcohol fuels
- Animal residues
- Landfill gas
- Industrial residues
So, what is biomass energy? Biomass power is the energy generated from the process of transforming bio-derived sources into fuel. There are plenty of different methods, but the most-used ones generally are bio-digestion, fermentation, combustion and pyrolysis.
Each type of biomass energy generation results in different fuels: From gases to liquids, they can be used, for example, as diesel, fertilizers or even electricity. As reported by biomass.net, biopower is quickly reaching its potential, which means we can expect to hear more about it in the years ahead.
Although biomass energy is greener than fossil fuels, it can also be quite polluting. When it comes to environmental friendliness, sources such as solar and wind power are still more effective.
When describing the pros and cons of biomass energy, RecondOil states that bioenergy is widely available on Earth, it is both renewable and carbon neutral, and can even reduce waste.
However, this source of energy still has some challenges ahead, as it can be costly and require large spaces. Also, biomass energy faces a dilemma: It is more polluting than other renewables, but less efficient than fossil fuels. This unpredictability makes its future uncertain, according to the Energy Post. It can be boosted by future climate action policies or outdone by cheaper, greener and more efficient energy sources.
3. Affordable green energy
Alternative energy sources are key to a net-zero energy future. We’ve seen some significant moves toward a cleaner future, such as the Paris Agreement, governmental programs and even private projects. Most developed countries have created large-scale green energy projects in the past years.
In the United States, many experts consider Americans to be “going solar” as more and more people are buying solar panels due to environmental concerns and looking for relief on their utility bills.
From time to time, new ideas and creations arise in the energy industry, from the most ambitious projects to energy-efficient versions of well-known products.
Yet, affordability is still a significant challenge for the green energy industry and, of course, households. Although consumers are worried about the environment, plenty of them still need to choose fossil fuels over green energy sources because it’s a cheaper option.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, renewable energy costs have fallen since the early 2000s, but remain an obstacle for low-income families. For example, more than 40 percent of the world’s population relies on polluting fuels for basic home tasks such as cooking and heating.
It’s not a coincidence that affordable and clean energy is one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals for 2030. The world is quickly noticing the importance of alternative energy sources. Now it’s time to make sure everyone has access not only to clean energy, but affordable energy as well.
4. Carbon taxes
Forty countries in the world are making polluters pay for carbon pollution, according to a Vox article. By putting a price on carbon, states hope to reduce their impact on global CO2 emissions.
The whole carbon pricing conversation is not so simple. While many people support the carbon tax, others fear more taxes will become a financial burden in the future. The discussion will probably last for a while, until the global community finds common ground.
To make the carbon tax more affordable, however, countries such as Canada provide residents with governmental rebates. Canadians can pay the carbon tax on a provincial level, as people in Alberta and British Columbia do, or under the federal program proposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In both cases, there are rebate options available.
In Europe, countries such as Sweden, Portugal and Germany have well-received carbon tax programs, which are helping their economies to decouple from high-emitting energy sources.
Nations such as Mexico, Australia, Chile and South Korea also have similar carbon pricing programs. Still, the vast majority of countries in the world are struggling to launch carbon taxes that fit both their environmental and social needs.
As the conversations on energy affordability and climate change advance, the carbon tax, or any other carbon pricing program, will become one of the main topics for federal and local governments around the world.
5. Tidal energy
Tidal power has been identified as one of the energy sources of the future. But do we know how tidal energy works, and, more importantly, if there is any large-scale project currently being developed?
Tidal energy harnesses the immense strength of ocean waves and tides and converts it into usable energy. According to most energy experts, tidal power is a green, predictable and renewable energy source.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and it’s no different with tidal energy. Like most energy sources, it has its pros and cons. Even though tidal energy projects can be predictable and green, they require plenty of money, and can harm marine life.
In the short term, tidal energy will probably provide a small share of the world’s energy production, according to PreScouter. However, the use of tidal power will increase once researchers find new ways to make it less costly and more eco-friendly.
When we take into consideration the potential of tidal power, we can assume some large-scale projects will change the tidal energy panorama. According to the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and Mines, for example, the tidal energy industry could contribute up to $1.7 billion to Nova Scotia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and create up to 22,000 full-time jobs.
Also in Canada, the Bay of Fundy — which has the highest tides in the world — is home to one of the largest tidal power projects currently in development. The power plant is partly funded by the Clean Energy Fund (CEF), and its budget includes fish research and other environmental assessment strategies.
6. Wind energy
According to GreenMatch, wind power is one of the fastest growing business segments in the world. That doesn’t change the fact that we still have a long way to go. As reported by Conserve Energy Future, although there has been a 25 percent increase in wind turbine use in the last decade, wind power only provides a small portion of the energy used worldwide.
These numbers will probably go up if we consider that most of the disadvantages of using wind energy are being overcome, especially regarding costs and the location challenge — it’s possible to see more off-shore wind farms under construction, as well as wind turbines attached to buildings.
Prices used to be an obstacle for wind energy investors and consumers. However, researchers from all over the world are changing that scenario with new, accessible projects that tend to make wind energy one of the largest industries of the 21st century.
Although costs and environmental impact are the top concerns regarding clean energy, every method or energy source will have its pros and cons. Some of the most common advantages and disadvantages related to wind power are:
- Low environmental impact
- Low health risks
- Economic advantages
- Landscape aesthetics
- Higher prices than fossil fuels
- The location challenge
- Harmful to bird life
7. Oil and gas
The oil and gas industry is a major electricity source for many countries in the world, and one of the largest industries when it comes to jobs. According to the World Petroleum Council, the oil industry was responsible for more than 146,000 Canadian jobs in 2015. So, what is the news for oil and gas in a world that is becoming greener every day?
The industry seems to be hit by two significant issues: Alongside volatile oil barrel prices, oil and gas are responsible for a massive amount of global emissions. As reported by the United States Energy Information Administration, 76 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels.
For oil-based economies, such as the province of Alberta, which is Canada’s largest oil market, this is even a bigger issue. That’s why companies, local governments and specialists have been joining forces to find an answer that focuses on both climate change and the economic impact of oil and gas.
The long-term outlook is surprisingly positive for the oil and gas industry. According to Canadian Fuels, the industry is not going away anytime soon. Actually, the global energy demand will rise by 37 percent into 2040.
However, consumers and workers can expect a shift in the way the oil and gas industry works. Well-known oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell and BP are using this energy source to work on the transition planned for future decades. Many of those companies have been investing in solar energy, wind power and even tidal power plants.
In fact, some institutions such as Pembina recognize how both fossil fuels and clean energy are somehow a match. In order to make the world go net-zero, we will need the oil and gas industry for a long time, especially for building more renewable power plants.
When it comes to jobs, the energy transition doesn’t necessarily mean job losses. Instead, larger investments in renewables could create more positions, especially if the costs of producing oil and gas keeps decreasing with new research.
As the demand for greener lifestyles increases, there is also an increasing demand for energy in general. With a global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, both industries will be essential to make sure everyone has access to basic services such as fuel for cooking, heating and lighting.
8. Electric cars and hydrogen-powered vehicles
About 15 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from cars, so it’s no wonder that alternative energy transportation is part of the energy talks for the future.
Some say the future belongs to electric cars, while others say it’s going to be all about hydrogen-powered vehicles. Either way, the reality is that we are starting to see fuel cell or electric car charging stations popping up here and there, which makes us wonder what the future of transportation is.
Although the prices of fuel for electric cars are cheaper than fossil fuels, there is still an infrastructure gap that needs to be solved. People will start using electric cars on a larger scale once they find charging stations as easily as they currently find gas stations. Even though this is a viable scenario, it will take some years for that to turn into reality.
To incentivize hydrogen-powered and electric car use, many local governments have been creating rebate programs or similar initiatives. In British Columbia, for example, incentives for fuel cell and electric cars make eco-friendly vehicles much more affordable.
Here’s a general list of some of the car brands often included in rebate programs:
9. Energy poverty, or fuel poverty
Fuel poverty is a longtime yet current threat to low-income families. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that more than 1.3 billion people still don’t have proper access to electricity. According to the World Watch, more than 80 percent of the people lacking access to power live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
This fuel gap is not only an energy crisis, but also a humanitarian issue, especially for communities in remote areas. According to the United Nations, one in seven people lacks access to electricity.
With energy rates that fluctuate from time to time, low-income families can’t always afford to pay for electricity and natural gas, according to MoneySuperMarket. Also, inequality can make it harder for low-income households to invest in energy efficiency, which ends up making their utility bills higher than they should be.
Such vulnerability increases risks to life and health, and can even reduce the number of opportunities in life. Read below a detailed list of some of the main consequences of energy poverty for low-income families.
- Illnesses caused by cooking harmful fuels
- Fewer opportunities in life: According to Finca, 140 million potentially productive person-years are annually wasted on fuel collection
- Higher risks of pneumonia and lung cancer
- Higher chances of heart disease
- Higher chances of house fires
- Higher use of fossil fuels such as charcoal or coal
- Higher chances of mental health issues
- Reduced access to education
When it comes to sustainable development, fuel poverty presents an even more considerable challenge. While developed countries are currently discussing how to employ clean energy alternatives, many third-world nations are figuring out how to provide energy for all.
According to Energy Mag, financial assistance and related governmental programs are essential to fight energy poverty not only domestically but also on an international level, which includes projects such as the G7 African Renewable Energy Initiative.
10. Geothermal energy
“What is geothermal energy?” If you were ever bothered by that question, you’re probably not alone. Geothermal energy is essentially the heat from the Earth. OK, that is an awfully broad answer, but don’t worry — here’s a more detailed explanation of how geothermal energy works.
Geothermal energy is thermal power produced and stored in the Earth. Geothermal power plants have a small carbon footprint and can work 24 hours a day. These projects use thermal energy to generate electricity or heat, and don’t need to rely on specific weather conditions to keep working.
Although this source has the potential to provide energy for the whole planet, geothermal produces less than 1 percent of the world’s electricity, according to Energy Digital.
If geothermal energy is clean and abundant, why don’t we have more power plants generating electricity for our homes? A simple yet accurate answer would be the high costs related to geothermal power.
To turn the heat from the Earth into energy, we need research, mapping and investments. Countries such as Iceland, New Zealand and the United States are some of the top geothermal energy producers due to their substantial investments in new power plants and maps.
As the world stills transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, the strong results provided by wind power and solar power may steal the spotlight from geothermal energy for a while. However, once the world reduces its use of “dirty energy” and increases its use of green energy, thermal energy sources tend to play a starring role in the energy conversation.