Fast Company

Five Predictions For The Future Of Energy

People love to prognosticate about how the world will power itself in the future. But only one person can be right. Here's some of the possible ways the next 50 years might turn out.

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It seems like a new prediction pops up for how we will use renewable energy in the coming decades every day. Will we be using all solar in two years? In five? Will we use more nuclear, or less? Experts love making predictions. Here, we round up some of the most exciting (and upsetting) predictions that have been made in the last few months. We don't have a crystal ball to say which of these will end up being correct, but with so many options, someone is going to look like a genius.

Prediction: Solar Energy Will Be More Economical Than Fossil Fuels In 10 Years

So says the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). According to the organization, solar PV systems may end up being the most economical form of electricity within the decade--but only if the solar industry continues to rapidly improve solar cell efficiency and create economies of scale. "As the cost of electricity from solar continues to decrease compared to traditional energy sources we will see tremendous market adoption, and I suspect it will be a growth limited only by supply. I fundamentally believe that solar PV will become one of the key elements of the solution to our near- and long-term energy challenges," said James Prendergast, IEEE Executive Director, in a statement.

Prediction: Solar Power Will Be As Cheap As Coal in Two Years

No need to wait a decade--the researchers over at Bloomberg New Energy Finance think that solar power could reach grid parity (the point at which solar is as cheap for utilities as fossil fuels) in the next two years. In ultra-sunny regions like the Middle East, the researchers contend that solar power is already competitive. Coal currently costs approximately 7 cents a watt, compared to 22 cents for solar. By 2013, these costs are expected to be equal. But what of our natural gas glut? Will that slow solar development?

Prediction: Natural Gas Will Kill Renewables

Natural gas produced from shale will kill the economics of renewable energy in the coming years, according to a report from Reuters. As solar and wind prices continue to fall, natural gas will stay on top. Because even if, say, offshore wind costs the same as natural gas by 2015 (as predicted by German utility E.ON), there is still an extra cost of building backup power for when the wind doesn't blow. As long as prices are cheap, it's simply easier for utilities to opt for always-on fossil fuels instead of intermittent renewable sources.

Prediction: Renewable Energy Use Will Grow, But So Will Coal And Natural Gas Use

The good news: The International Energy Association believes that renewable energy will grow from 8% of total energy use in 2009 to 13% in 2035. The bad news: Coal and natural gas will also grow--energy generation from coal will increase by 25% from 2009 to 2035, and shale gas production will grow nearly fourfold during that same time frame. So much for cutting down on carbon emissions.

Prediction: We Could Power 100% Of the Planet With Renewable Energy By 2050

Sure, it's unlikely, but a Stanford research team believes that we could power the planet entirely with renewable energy by 2050--if we mandate that all new energy production plants use renewable energy by 2030 and convert existing plants by 2050. In this happy-go-lucky prediction, 90% of energy production would come from wind and solar energy, and the other 10% would come from hydroelectric, geothermal, and wave/tidal power. Cars, trains, ships, and other forms of transportation would use hydrogen-powered fuel cells, and aircraft would run on hydrogen fuel. The only problem: somehow beating back the fossil fuel industry to a point of nonexistence. This is a pipe dream at best--but one that we should at least aspire to. Check back in 2050.

[Hompage image: Flickr user Secret Madeira; top image: Flickr user Kyknoord]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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5 Comments

  • Leigh Price

    bobby....sorry to say that the amount of natural gas burned off in landfills is a tiny fraction of our energy needs...I mean REALLY tiny (try 0.015%)...so it's not really a 'heck of a start'....solar panel installs aren't overlook, they are just not economic at this point.

  • johnwerneken

    I should like to know why anyone would aspire to renewables becoming more important as an energy source. Surely cheap safe and convenient is enough.

  • Peter Hans Frohwein

    Exxon-Mobile is running internet ads which very strongly imply that
    natural gas, hydraulic fracturing is safe.  Given what is already known,
    that fracking is toxic to the environment and is not safe.  Exxon-Mobile's
    ads are a flat out lie.

    The Coal industry keeps using their slogan:  Clean Coal.   Referring to
    the yet to be implemented (if ever) coal carbon capture process.   Currently, burning
    coal is NOT clean.  At best the slogan: Clean Coal is highly deceptive.

  • bobby

    one thing people dont take into condieration with natural gas is that we burn so much of it off in landfills. its so crazy how much free energy that we create with our garbage is just wasted everyday. take some pipe lines from land fills and hook them up to the gas company. its not a permanent fix but its one heck of a start. oh and with people worried about the eco system why havent we put more solar panels and roof top gardens on top of buildings in major cities? such simple solutions to such big problems.... makes you wonder why they get over looked.

  • Rene Schlegel

    Natural Gas looks great on paper vs.coal in terms of CO2 and conversion rates. What is never taken into the calculation: The very (!) significant amount of water and chemical additives to it to extract the gas. The calculation needs to be revisited for a fairer comparison with both, coal and renewables. 
    The "not always on" argument for renewables is well taken. It must lead to more R&D in electricity storage, and not only with electro-chemical methods. <rs>
    @Rene_Schlegel:twitter </rs>