08 Nov 2019

This Is How You Will Power Your Business By 2050

Energy flowing through city
 

All around the world, energy companies, consumers and governments are seeking new sources of power - cleaner, better and more efficient. 

As states like California have committed to getting 50% of their power from renewable sources, scientists and innovators are stepping up to the challenge, striving to improve or invent technologies that will fit the bill.

Which of these will fade into the sands of time and which will go from strength to strength? Which will dominate the energy landscape in 2050?

Let’s take a look at the most promising developments and resilient sectors shaping the future of power generation today - and tomorrow.

Bright New Sparks

The future of power depends on all kinds of technological innovations, efficiency-boosters and supporting infrastructure. Here are some of the key ideas to watch right now that will shape our relationship with fuel and electricity by 2050.

Clean Gasoline Alternatives

Currently, fossil fuels power 80% of our activities. People are used to them; vehicles and other technologies rely on them. Rather than trying to force a speedy culture change, some researchers are looking at ways to replicate the molecules used in diesel and petrol... but by recycling carbon dioxide and water that’s already present in the air to make hydrocarbons, rather than digging up new supplies from underground. 

There’s a catch, though. These processes take energy! As such, the race is on to find ways to use renewable energy from wind and solar to power large-scale efforts to create hydrocarbons. 

In short, by 2050 you could live in a world where some of the diesel you put in your car or your generator is basically made using wind. Amazing, right?

A Low-Carbon Grid

How do you decarbonize the grid without limiting economic growth? How do you get reliable electricity to every human on the planet without increasing emissions? How do you switch over to electricity sources that rely on changeable conditions, like the wind blowing or the sun shining, while making power available as consistently as we’re used to?

The answer for many top scientists and engineers in the field is efficiency. We need to make our grids smarter. Install grid edge technologies that help customers and utility companies to track their usage and find better ways to consume less. Use data in much cleverer ways and pay close attention to patterns of use and try out innovative, streamlined approaches. 

With an enormous proportion of the world’s off-grid population set to move onto it in the next few decades, this will be an ideal testing ground for grid systems that combine low carbon generation with consistent availability. By 2050, these cutting edge solutions will likely have replaced the ancient, crumbling solutions we rely on in the West, too.

Better Batteries

Whether we’re talking about electric vehicles, backup generators or reserve units when supply dips, high-performing batteries will be an absolute must for a carbon-free energy future. 

At the moment, these are too large and not powerful enough to really challenge existing technology - but with the rate of development we’re seeing now, this will be very different by 2050. 

Carbon Capture

This isn’t an alternative to current power generation, but it could end up supporting existing systems for longer. Carbon capture involves catching CO2 as it’s leaving power plants, transforming it into a liquid and burying it, safely, deep underground. 

If it works, it will give these facilities far more breathing space to make the gradual switch to carbon-free fuel.

Power Struggles

These are the major developments making waves in the energy sector right now. But what does that mean for the ways we generate power? Which industries will survive and thrive - and which will be little more than a relic by 2050?

Here are our predictions for who and what will - and won’t - power your business in 30 years’ time.

The Losers

Let’s start by taking a look at the industries that will begin to decline in the coming decades.

Coal Crumbles to Dust

First of all (and no surprises here): it’s coal. Coal mines are closing at an astonishing rate, all over the US and beyond. 

Part of this is because fossil fuels have fallen out of favor, but most of it is purely about economics. After all, it’s already cheaper to build a wind farm than to maintain a coal  plant. It seems safe to say that, in 2050, you’re as likely to find coal in a power plant as you are in your Christmas stocking.

Hydropower Turns to a Trickle 

Bloomberg predicts that investment in hydropower will steadily decline over the coming decades. That’s not to say it will dry up altogether, but it’s unlikely to play as an important role as many believed until now.

Some people might be surprised by this. There’s no denying the incredible potential of hydropower, or its attractiveness as a carbon-free form of energy generation. 

The trouble is, building giant dams is also an incredibly disruptive approach that can cause untold environmental damage as well as redirecting water sources and leading to food insecurity among fishing communities. The backlash to major projects in regions like the Mekong River basin has been enormous, while squabbles over the control of water fuel violent struggles in places like Kashmir. 

In short, investing in power generation projects that affect multiple countries and attract the ire of militant groups or affected communities can be a legal, logistical, ethical and ultimately financial nightmare. No wonder the sector is losing its luster for many investors!

One exception, however, could prove to be tidal power. Once seen as a niche sub-category of hydropower, the industry is starting to, well, make waves, with many more billions expected to be invested in the coming years. By 2050, it could become a serious contender.

Biomass Burns Out

10 years ago, everyone thought biomass and geothermal energy was the next big thing. That hasn’t panned out, though. Companies couldn’t figure out a way to make it cheap enough or effective enough to be truly viable. 

Meanwhile, the industry lost its grip on the environmental argument as more and more people pointed out that burning biomass is, in fact, pretty bad for Co2 levels. 

No wonder biomass now only accounts for a fraction of energy investment. By 2050, it will be all but non-existent.

The Winners 

By 2050, solar and wind are expected to provide an incredible two-thirds of electricity we use. That’s a seismic shift. However, there’s still that other one-third to think about, isn’t there? Here are the power sources we predict will be on the cards, 30 years from now.

The Sunny Future of Solar Power

Solar power adoption got off to a slow start, but that’s all changing now. Some estimates put the rate of growth at 6500% by 2050! 

In other words, in 30 years, solar will rule the roost - along with wind, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

Of course, some areas of the world enjoy more unbroken sunshine and thus are intrinsically better suited to reliance on solar power. The fact remains though, that we’ve barely scratched the surface of this hugely lucrative power source. Enough solar energy hits the earth every hour to power all human activities for a year, after all. 

No wonder solar power is taking off in such a big way. It’s also supported by compelling photovoltaic research into materials that extend the lifecycle, increase storage and reduce the cost of solar cells and batteries. 

(Steady) Wind Power Continues

The wind farm industry is growing at a staggering rate. With China and the US investing so heavily in wind power, and with increasingly effective load-testing and commissioning support to get wind farms onto the grid, the sector finally has the leg-up it needed to thrive. 

Whereas much of the growth in solar power is fuelled by families and businesses installing panels on roofs, these wind farms are huge industrial projects. As such, they can truly compete against the old guard of power plants… and as energy-reserving technology improves to coast them through periods of low wind, much of your power could come from wind turbines long before 2050 rolls around.

Nuclear Plants Lay Deep Roots

Right now, we only know two sources of on-demand, consistently reliable energy: fossil fuels and nuclear. 

Fossil fuels, as we’ve seen, are on the way out - and although nuclear power often gets bad press, it remains a solid carbon-free alternative that’s unlikely to die out in the next 30 years. 

Little surprise, then, that output from nuclear plants is increasing year on year, and investment in the sector is expected to remain consistent for at least the next 30 years.

Natural Gas On Its Last Puff

Right now, natural gas production is steadily mounting in the US and will probably continue to do so until 2050. Demand is rising sharply, especially in countries like China, and most analysts presume that the market will grow to satisfy this. 

Natural gas is seen as a transitional fuel to move countries off coal and towards renewables. It can cut emissions in half, which is an excellent short to mid-term solution - but it does involve all kinds of other problems, especially when it comes to handling toxic chemicals. 

Two things seem likely to happen in the next 30 years, though. One is that depleting supplies of natural gas will make it hard to sustain this rate of growth after 2040 - realistically, production will be falling by 2050. The second is that the growing pressure to move away from fossil fuels entirely will inhibit the growth of the sector.

That said, it doesn’t seem possible that we’ll be weaned off natural gas by 2050. Rather, emerging technologies such as carbon capture will be used to keep emissions under control. 

Natural gas isn’t going anywhere soon, but we’d be amazed if it continued to gather traction after many more decades!

The Wild Card: Airborne Ethanol

Evolutions in nanoscience mean that scientists can now work increasingly at the atomic scale - with very exciting results.

At Stanford University, for example, researchers have found a way to combine Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen molecules, using a catalyst to produce ethanol that can be fed as fuel into a gasoline tank. 

While currently in their infancy, strategies like this that use atomic layering to create combustible products will only get faster and more efficient in the coming years, making it very possible that lab-made fuels will be part of our power generation mix by 2050.

Final Thoughts: Efficiency is Everything

As the global population not only grows but becomes more connected, coping with rising demand and limited resources will take a lean, efficiency-conscious approach.

We’re already seeing a surge in grid-edge technologies like sensors and smart meters to help monitor and improve electricity use. We’re starting to see more attention paid to data analysis and trend mapping. More and more people are becoming proactive about tweaking processes and managing power use to reduce consumption, costs, and waste.

No one knows for certain what 2050 will bring, but you can future-proof yourself today by auditing and enhancing your own systems and process trains to make sure that your business is ready for whatever comes. If you’re nimble and resilient, you’ll power on through!