Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

Carbon Fiber May Not Be Necessary

Inlay with nacre tesserae; Bagdad pavilion; th...Image via Wikipedia

Looked at one way, carbon fiber composites are just our simplistic human analog of natural nano-featured composites like those that make up mussel and abalone shells. Mollusks use a “digital” process for creating their shells – a digital process controlled by a computer running DNA as its code. What if we could make composites like those little molluscs – stronger and more resilient than some random fibers jammed into some plastic?

Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, following on work done at Michigan and MIT, have created a new bio-inspired material that combines the strength of ceramics with the stretchiness of polymers. Consisting of ceramic platelets in a polymer matrix, like bricks in mortar, the material is both light and strong – approximately four times as strong as steel.

In designing the material, the researchers carefully studied the mechanical structure of nacre, the shiny layer on the inside of seashells, and tried to improve it. Nacre has platelets made of calcium carbonate arranged in layers inside a protein-based polymer. “There’s something very special about the size of these platelets,” Studart says. “Nacre uses specific platelet length and thickness to achieve the high strength and [stretchability] that you see in metals.”

This type of biomimicry is the next major frontier of materials science. Sea shell, or nacre, has long been a target for researchers in the emerging field of biomimetics – literally “copying life” – along with artificial photosynthesis for gathering sunlight as energy, multiple other materials such as spider silk, and a whole host of behaviors and capabilities that the natural world has evolved over hundreds of millions, or even billions, of years.

The combination of nature’s techniques, such as creating nacre with a digital process, and Man’s inventiveness is ushering an era of materials with amazing properties – just in time to address some of the most significant problems we’re facing, including global climate change and sustainable energy.

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Carbon Mitigation Through Carbon Fiber?

A cloth of woven carbon filamentsImage via Wikipedia

Here’s an idea – let’s just suck the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon fiber to build superlight cars! These superlight cars would significantly reduce our demand for gasoline in the short term, and enable a right-sized hydrogen-based transportation fuel economy in the long term! Sounds great, right? But it’s a pipe dream right now – today carbon fiber is made from PolyAcryloNitrile (PAN), which is made from petroleum, and it’s an expensive and time-consuming process to make the fiber, and to make automobile parts from it.

Let’s quickly tot up the pros and cons of carbon fiber as part of a profitable solution to the world’s energy problems:

Pros:

  • Enables superlight cars, which require much smaller (therefore relatively less expensive as well as more efficient) engines to provide equivalent performance to current cars
  • Huge safety advantages, due to a) vehicles having less kinetic energy due to lower weight and b) structures can be incredibly strong and or selectively weak to protect passengers and provide crumple zones
  • Can significantly reduce the number of parts per vehicle
  • Can significantly reduce assembly time per vehicle

Cons:

  • 2-10 times more expensive per part than steel
  • Carbon fiber production significantly lower than necessary for application to even a fraction of new vehicles
  • Cycle times for parts are typically in hours, rather than minutes as for steel parts
  • Design expertise is limited
  • Process for making fibers is environmentally unfriendly
  • Fabrication techniques have a large amount of fiber waste, compounding the cost disadvantage

Despite the advantages of carbon fiber, the disadvantages seem so overwhelming that many analysts have discounted it as a near term option. For example, the recent MIT report “On The Road In 2035” asserts:

“Polymer composites [that is, carbon fiber reinforced composites, ed.] are also expected to replace some steel in the vehicle, but to a smaller degree given high cost inhibitions.”

So, the future for carbon fiber is not looking rosy. But… There is some hope on the horizon. The companies, organizations, and research labs that break the code can look forward to significant returns, so the investment in addressing carbon fiber’s disadvantages is large and growing. Several startups are promising significant improvements in cost and cycle time, while multiple labs are addressing the questions of feedstock, environmental impact, cycle time, and efficiency. Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute already argues that the time is now to initiate the transition to composite cars, with his Hypercar.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the following topics on the work of improving carbon fiber composites.

  • Reducing the cost
  • Improving cycle time
  • Reducing waste
  • Using environmentally friendly processes for feedstock generation, fiber creation, and fabrication
  • Other alternatives for strong, lightweight composites, including new biomemetic materials
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