By Lars Krogerstrom
(part 1 available here)
The distribution of energy is a combination of energy and logistics that has mainly evolved during the last hundred years. Oil, coal and other fossil fuels revolutionized the world because they could be transported across long distances, so that even cold northern regions could heat houses, power vehicles and feed industries with high-yield energy.
Electricity came to be an even more efficient way of delivering energy, being primarily a method of distribution. The first grids, however, were local and moved power from water turbines to nearby industries. Today, much of the transfer of electricity has become a long-distance affair that places large demands on the capacity of national grids.
Transferring electricity from production facilities to consumers is becoming an ever more advanced process. The more renewable and weather-dependent solar and wind energy that is included into energy systems, the larger the demands on electricity grids and transfer systems.
The rays of the sun are enough to supply the whole world with energy. But before this theoretical utopia becomes reality, there's the matter of a sweeping reboot of the world's energy system. Future-minded scientists have painted a picture of what it might look like.
The energy system of the future will be both large-scale and small-scale. The desert areas of the world will be partly covered by gigantic solar energy complexes, where a multitude of different technologies will produce electricity. With wires and cables running east and west, electricity will be sent from areas with daylight to areas where there is night. In the north-south direction, electricity from the desert will be sent to the densely populated regions of the temperate zones.
Large scale industrial production demands efficient grids and electricity cables. The role and function of the electricity grids is a key factor to the energy systems of the future. What is already today called "smart grids" means, among other things, that consumers will become active participants in balancing supply and demand in the energy system.
On a smaller scale, every building owner, or at least those willing and interested, can become their own energy producers by featuring solar panels on the roof, or a windmill in the yard. When the sun shines and the building's own energy consumption is low, it becomes it's own net energy producer, delivering electricity to the grid. During other hours of the day and the year, the building is a normal energy consumer. This is a technology that is fully operational already today.
In other words, the role of the citizens will become a more active one, both as producer and consumer.
The changeover to electric vehicles is expected to play yet another role in the energy system. The batteries of electric cars can function as a buffer and short-term storage to balance fluctuations in the external energy supply. One of the big challenges for the climate-neutral energy supply of the future will be to balance and compensate for swings and irregularities in production from weather dependent energy sources.
The sun in the Sahara will of course not be the only egg in the energy basket of the future. Large wave-energy fields can be imagined for the Arctic Ocean, as can windmills just about anywhere.
Biofuel-powered district heating and power heating plants will stand its ground in the competition of the future, and will likely be an important part in regional energy systems.
Energy-heavy based industries will surely also develop more self-sufficient and maybe even net producing units where waste products and waste heat are captured and refined more efficiently than today. The stability of energy systems is conditioned upon the electricity grids of the regions being bound together and that their transfer capacity is increased.
In which way the energy changeover will occur, and which types of energy will be winners and losers, depends on many known and unknown factors.
But, at the end of the day, only our imaginations set limits for envisioning what the energy systems of the future will look like.