Our Incredibly Dull Energy Future

Even if we make big strides toward clean energy, the future won’t look very different from today.

The new smart electric drive
The new smart electric drive

Photograph by Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. On Oct. 19, you’re invited to join us for a Future Tense event in Washington, D.C., about the next era of energy. For more information and to RSVP for “What Will Turn Us On in 2030?,” visit the New America Foundation’s website.

The future of energy is going to be awesome. Everyone will drive an electric car, powered by the sun. We’ll completely eliminate our need to burn coal or natural gas, and nuclear power will be thing of the past.

No, wait. The future of energy is going to be terrible. Peak oil will catch us off guard. Combating climate change will mean abandoning modern conveniences. Within a generation, we’ll all be living like it’s 1899.

These two predictions couldn’t be more different, but they do have one thing in common: They both make the future of energy sound awfully exciting. Whether you’re pessimistic or optimistic, you get the feeling that everything is going to change, and fast.

But what if it doesn’t?

I spent the last two years working on a book about the future of energy in the United States. Called Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, it’s about the big picture. From solar panels on the community college to energy-efficient lighting in government offices—all those little projects you read about in the newspaper are adding up to something big, and those trends will shape what we can (and can’t) do next. But while researching my book, I noticed something important. The future of energy is probably going to be a little boring.

I don’t mean to say that the way we make and use energy now is perfectly safe. Relying so completely on fossil fuels has some mighty big risks, and if we keep on doing what we’re doing, we’ll eventually pay a stiff price. Changes have to be made. But the way those changes are likely to play out over the next couple of decades is surprisingly underwhelming.

For instance, in May 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report aimed at detailing the global potential of existing renewable energy technologies and explaining what has to be done to make those technologies work the way we want them to. They did this by comparing the results of 16 different computer models running scenarios on 164 possible futures.
In 2008, all of the countries in the world got 12.9 percent of their energy from renewable sources, not counting nuclear energy. By 2030, more than half of the scenarios showed the world getting about 17 percent of its energy from those sources. That amount of change isn’t piddling. But it doesn’t represent a massive shift in lifestyle, either. If you’re one of those people who feels a little let down by the distinct lack of flying cars in your life, get used to disappointment. In 2030, we probably won’t even all be driving electric cars.

The truth is that, while the optimistic and pessimistic possibilities make for great science fiction, reality is often a lot more messy … and banal. That’s true today, and it was true the last time we totally changed our energy infrastructure.

The first permanent electric grids in the world started operating in 1882. Today, it’s tempting to look back and see those events as unequivocal triumphs. But they weren’t. In fact, while Thomas Edison got rich off his patents, many of the first local electric companies failed miserably. At the time, the only use for electricity was as a source of light. Utilities simply couldn’t make enough money off light bulbs alone to balance out the cost of building the infrastructure. It wasn’t until the 1920s, following the invention of a multitude of small electric appliances and motors, that electricity became a profitable industry.

After 80 years of different researchers fiddling with prototype incandescent lamps, and another 40 years of mostly unsuccessful attempts at commercialization, it took something as boring as the toaster to make electricity a household commodity.

The trouble, of course, is that we don’t have as much time to transform our energy system today. With a peak in global oil production looming and the effects of climate change already being felt, can we really afford to let the next 20 years go by without something exciting happening?

The answer is yes … and no. Exciting things have to happen, in the sense that we need to set ourselves some energy goals and stick to them. But even if we do that, the world won’t be all that different in 2030.

Integrated Global System Modeling framework is a computer model built by researchers at MIT and designed to make forecasts about issues related to climate change and energy. One of the things it’s been used to do is make realistic predictions about how American energy sources might change if we put serious, global limits on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

If we limit global carbon dioxide concentrations to 550 parts per million, we’ll be hitting a relatively stringent goal. Carbon dioxide concentrations are already around 390 ppm, an increase of 60 ppm since the late 1970s. And the rise of industrial production in places like China and India is likely to mean that emissions will increase at a faster rate in years to come. A firm 550 ppm limit would be a big deal. But, during the next 20 years, the effects of drawing that line in the sand wouldn’t be terribly dramatic—at least not in terms of where we get our energy from.

If we limit carbon dioxide to 550 ppm, IGSM predicts that fossil fuels will still be the United States’ biggest energy source in 2030. Our use of renewables will increase, but not by much. By far, the biggest changes IGSM expects are a 17 percent decrease in energy use, compared with a 2030 where we’ve done nothing, and a shift from coal to natural gas. Those are important changes, but they’re not necessarily ones you’ll notice in your everyday life. New light bulbs will replace old. Thermostats and appliances will be a little smarter and more efficient. This 2030 is definitely different from a 2030 where we’ve done nothing. It will take a lot of work and money to reduce our energy use and burn less coal. And this is setting the stage for much bigger, more exciting, changes in the future. But it isn’t a flying car. It’s a toaster oven.

And that’s OK. When we look at the future of energy, our goal shouldn’t be to create a utopia. We’d fail at that, in any case, because no source of energy is perfect. Reality is messy. Instead, our goal should be to take what we have and make it more sustainable. That’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Like the first utility companies, we’re doing a lot of experimentation here and there’s no one right answer for how to make all the parts fit together. That’s what you see reflected in the two 2030s predicted by IGSM. And that’s why 2030 is likely to be kind of boring. Boring is the first step in building something amazing.