Future power – how might we produce energy in 2050?

Power plant using renewable solar energy with sun

It’s clear that the current ways we produce and consume energy will be difficult to sustain over the long term (already, the US uses as much electricity to cool its buildings as Africa uses on pretty much everything). But changing the ways we produce and consume power could lead to fundamental changes in our relationship with energy companies.

How travel technology might affect energy use

For instance, transport. There are currently close to 1 billion powered vehicles on the planet, and likely to be twice that by 2050. They’re going to need power, and fossil fuels may not always be the best means to provide it.

Self-driving cars may help us to use roads more efficiently, allowing us to place more vehicles on the roads, closer together, but moving safely, with the optimum ratio of fuel use to distance travelled. They may even be predominantly underground and powered by electricity, like the transport system in the new, ‘carbon neutral’, city of Masdar, near Abu Dhabi.

However, cars will still need power, perhaps from biofuels such as ethanol. The big problem is that the amount of space required to grow sugarcane or corn could lead us into further social and economic trouble. Biofuel providers could become the biggest landowners in the world, which would cause problems for food supply, for example.

But scientists are also looking at the possibility of synthesising the process, using sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce fuel, rather than go through what is effectively a plant middleman. That wouldn’t involve growing anything at all. But there’s still a long way to go before this can become a practical reality.

Energy micro production

People may end up producing much of their own power themselves. British company Pavegen is already making panels that produce small amounts of power when they’re stepped on. It’s enough to provide lighting for busy areas of buildings, even for football pitches. The Soccket, developed by a US startup, is a football that converts kinetic energy into electric power. Kicking it for 30 minutes can light a bulb for up to three hours. It’s being trialled in developing countries to help kids read at night.

Power from everyday objects

Making better use of existing resources will also be crucial, including some that aren’t immediately obvious.

Biocircuitry technologies are being developed which can tap into the energy produced by plants as they’re growing. The E-Kaia prototype, for instance, pulls energy from the soil – enough to charge a mobile phone in 1.5 hours.

Our clothes offer rich potential too. The ‘solar fibres’ in the Wearable Solar range take two hours of sunlight to charge a mobile phone. Nanowire textiles allow clothes to retain heat more effectively than conventional fibres and can be switched on to actively generate heat too. With clothes like these, there may be less need for the wasteful practise of heating whole rooms or buildings. And haptic energy pods, such as those being developed by the Harvest project, can be stored in footwear, bicycles or even kept in pockets, and use movement to generate power.

High-speed food delivery could also change our energy consumption habits. Services like Deliveroo are being crowded by the likes of Google, UberEats, Amazon Prime Now and more, leading to more people ordering their hot food. And for many, that could mean less cooking at home, with consequently less use of domestic power.

With all these changes to the production, delivery and use of power, energy companies as we know them today may change out of all recognition. If people are producing much of their own energy (or can access more sources themselves), will they still need to pay as much for their monthly bill to keep the lights on, or their home comfortable? However our relationship to energy develops over the next half century, it certainly won’t look like it does today.

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