Four Scenarios For The Future Of Energy

We are reaching an historical inflection point, where our current decisions about energy use and carbon will have major effects on how we live in coming decades. Here are four possible scenarios for what things will be like in 2025.

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.

Growth: A Rising Tide

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.

Constraint: Sharing the Load

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.

Collapse: Shut Down

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.

Transformation: A New Dawn

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 towards renewable energy now, but the way we respond to disasters in the coming years may play the biggest part in deciding our future.

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  • Abrakadabra

    Here's a fifth scenario.  We continue to use fossil fuels to produce cheap and reliable energy.

  • Jürgen Hubert

    "Fossil fuels" and "cheap and reliable" is rather dubious even now, if you take the side effects into account. Given the increasing energy demand and increasing cost of extracting fossil fuels, this will be even less the case in the future.

  • Kwazai

    One morescenario-
    Grassroots- low tech supplemental solar on a backyard basis- window heat exchangers for supplemental solar heat, crawlspace geothermal (ancient roman) airconditioning also supplemental- much lower initial cost, faster payback-defeats the grid for part of the time-reduces the 49% of energy use for heating and cooling.
    DIY electric vehicles-most notably motorcycles. .01/mile fuel cost-low initial prices.
    Still very much a price driven market. Grassroots as citizens take it upon themselves to 'punt'.

    Urban agriculture in the process (greenhouses and sunspaces...)....

  • Lars Fjord Mølby

    We are sure to reach a disaster if we do not address the
    problems of an economy based on continuous and growing consumption, and stop
    focusing on any kind of technological solution. Ideas about biofuels,
    electrical cars, bioengineering etc. have the function of keeping us in the
    belief that we can solve the climate issues within our current ideological
    structure. We need to develop a culture where we do not think of cheap
    transportation and consumer commodities as rights, but as politically given
    freedoms, that in their act limit other peoples freedoms. We need to realize
    that the world that is broad to us by mainstream media is incredibly limited
    and designed to keep status quo. We need to grow a personal and political
    ideology where the focus is meeting basic human needs. Food, shelter, love,
    security, time for social and creative engagement. These are the things that
    makes us happy and thrive as humans. Consuming stuff is trashing the planet and
    our communities, and has been scientifically proven to not improve our
    happiness. The one sided focus on energy use is helping to keep the status quo.
    No matter which kind of fuel you use, you will use vast amounts of unrenewable resources
    in producing cars, roads, planes, airports, computers, cell phones, clothes,
    concrete, glass, bricks, plastic. Stuff should be made to last as good as
    possible, for as long as possible. Not to break down, or be outdated by
    fashion. Producers, and not civic society, should be charged for the
    environmental impact in the production and disposal of their products. With all
    the jobs freed in this way, we can begin to use our time on truly meaningful
    work such as growing fresh and healthy food in our local area, personally
    taking care of our old, young and sick and developing ourselves towards more
    loving and critically thinking humans.