Feb. 29, 2012 at 3:24 PM ET
The potential ramifications of climate change are quickly becoming apparent, energy costs are rising and alternative energy investments are stalling. What kind of future does this portend for our energy supply? The futurists over at the Institute for the Future have some ideas, which they have laid out in four scenarios for the year 2025 — some more optimistic than others.
In this optimistic scenario, peak oil is reached in 2024. Both fossil fuels and renewable energy sources play a big part in the energy market, but cost parity is near for renewables, which means they’re about to gain an edge. Wise investments in the smart grid and new sources of energy have generated millions of green jobs. A robust energy infrastructure uses the 20th-century grid as a backbone but is filled with smart-grid upgrades. Unfortunately, temperatures are still rising. Instead of attempting to stop temperatures from rising further, we focus on geoengineering and other adaptation techniques. (Editor's note: The thinkers at the Institute for the Future are contributors to Co.Exist, with stories on how big data is affecting our decision making, and the future of social networking: bio-social networking.)
The government has taken direct control over the energy industry thanks to massive oil spills, nuclear disasters and record profits for oil companies. In this scenario, renewables never even had a chance to reach grid parity — mandatory government efficiency requirements have forced people to curb energy use. Sensors and smart meters set household thermostats at optimal regional levels, and local energy sharing is beginning to look attractive. People have enough energy for their needs, but no more.
This is the Doomsday Prepper scenario. We failed to scale up alternative energies quickly enough and didn’t make any big technological breakthroughs to save us. The government has been so debt-ridden that it no longer spends money on energy R&D. Instead, it can barely maintain the current infrastructure. The U.S. has dealt with economic and climate crises, and it’s difficult to just meet basic needs. As a result, however, global carbon emissions have dropped below 1990 levels by 2025 — meaning the planet might sidestep permanent climate chaos. Communities are banding together to recover from disasters and building new energy systems from the ground up.
In this future, we managed to completely sidestep a spiraling energy crisis. Ongoing weather crises and energy disruptions spurred the U.S. to increase funding for energy research. Combined with private incentives and increased international collaboration, researchers had enough cash on hand to make regular technological breakthroughs. Now, we can enjoy affordable commodities and cheap transportation.
What will it take to get from where we are now to the attractive "Transformation" scenario? Any number of technological advancements, including better fuel cells, energy-generating buildings, heat recycling and biofuels. Changes in the environment, government, quality of life and the economy will also inform the direction that we take.
In three out of the four scenarios, major crises played a turning point. We should continue on a path toward renewable energy now, but the way we respond to disasters in the coming years may play the biggest part in deciding our future.