Personalized Energy: The Next Paradigm; in the Future, Energy Will Be More in the Control of Neighborhoods and Homeowners. but for That to Happen, New Technologies Need to Be Developed That Bring Efficiency and Reliability Up and Costs Down, Says a Technology Futurist

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Consumers want more control over their energy, and they want it cheaper, cleaner, more convenient, and more reliable. They want energy, like other commodities, to be more personalized. Technological improvements will focus on meeting those demands, but they won't happen quickly. Current forecasts for energy supply and demand are limited by a mind-set stuck in the past. But new technologies and new consumer imperatives will spawn new ideas about energy that could get us off the grid and bring power generation into neighborhoods and even into homes.

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The primary question we need to ask about the future of energy is whether the old supply-and-demand paradigm of fossil fuels still applies. In that case, the key to solving our energy woes lies in finding ways to increase production of traditional hydrocarbon fuels (such as oil, natural gas, and coal) and promote consumer conservation. But if the old paradigm is out, there may be a whole new paradigm emerging, where new technologies, for instance, could change the whole energy picture.

Right now, we hear too many discussions about drilling more oil, conserving energy, and other actions based on old-paradigm thinking. Indeed, statistics show a big gap between projected energy demand and supplies in the United States: Oil and natural gas consumption are going up and available quantities are going down, so we're going to have a big projected shortfall.

The biggest jump in American energy consumption in the twentieth century was the use of petroleum, and that's almost exclusively transportation. Transportation relies on petroleum to meet 95% of its energy needs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The story on coal is a little bit different. Developed economies such as the United States used to use coal in homes for heating, but that's done almost nowhere anymore. Americans are using more and more coal, but it's to generate electricity in large power plants. Coal is now rarely used at the individual level.

The 2001 report of the president's National Energy Policy Development Group stated, "Renewable and alternative fuels offer hope for America's energy future but they supply only a small fraction of present energy needs. The day they fulfill the bulk of our [energy] needs is still years away. Until that day comes we must continue meeting the nation's energy requirements by the means available to us."

This assertion assumes no changes to the existing energy paradigm: no new technological breakthroughs, no shifts in people's values or consumers' demands, no surprising events--natural or manmade--to alter the energy picture. But this paradigm-blinder limits our thinking--and our forecasts. Paradigms and social systems are rarely permanent, and new technology often drives a transition to other paradigms.

My thesis is that we have just begun the shift away from what I call the "carbon-combustion paradigm" to a new "electro-hydrogen paradigm." The shift is going to be very dramatic in the next 20 years, but the full integration is going to take easily a hundred years. We're going to see a lot of exciting technology innovations in the laboratory and in prototype systems in the next 10 to 20 years, but to go from our current paradigm and all its infrastructure to a new paradigm and all of its infrastructures is going to take a very long time.

Energy and the Consumer

Changes in consumer behavior are driving many trends. In the U.S. market, baby boomers seek convenience, while the elderly put heavy emphasis on the reliability and affordability of power. The question for policy makers and the energy industry is how reliable the electric grid will be in the future. Both baby boomers and Generation X'ers value customization--the personalization of products, especially computers and cell phones. Consumers also want more mobility and longevity in their products. And of course we all want inexpensive energy. …