What Will Turn Us On in 2030?

Forecasting where our energy will come from in 20 years.

This article arises from Future Tensea collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Close-up of crystal ball.
What can we predict about the future of energy sourcing?

Photo by Stockbyte/Thinkstock.

Will it be solar power? Nuclear power? Biofuels from algae? At a Future Tense event on Wednesday, energy experts took their best at prognosticating where our energy will come from in 2030. Though the participants came from a variety of backgrounds—academia, the auto industry, clean-tech startups, science journalism—everyone agreed on one thing: Our energy sources two decades from now won’t be too different from today.

Twenty years can seem like the distant future to those of us more accustomed to thinking about our plans for next week. Yet 2030 isn’t that far away. Johan de Nysschen, the president of Audi of America, noted that two decades is the equivalent of three car-model life cycles. Given that reality, could we really expect that the roadways will be filled with electric vehicles by 2030? Probably not.

Given this short time frame, oil will surely still play a dominant role in the energy marketplace. In two decades, we may achieve greater fuel efficiency with internal-combustion engines, homes may be heated more efficiently, and alternative fuels may have reached the mainstream. But fossil fuels will still power much of the world. A more realistic time frame for a radically different energy landscape may be 50, 80, or even 100 years. Forecasting that far out, though, might be a fool’s errand, as New America Foundation senior research fellow Parag Khanna emphasized in a short video. Predictions of the future often tell us more about the present; we can’t possibly know how technology, or catastrophic global events, will transform the world and our energy needs.

Back to the present, or near-present, day. No alternative energy source currently in development is near ready for prime time. While biofuels and solar energy have niche utility right now, they can’t yet be scaled up. The X Prize Foundation’s Peter Diamandis, who spearheaded a $10 million competition to create more energy-efficient cars, noted that price and convenience, not guilt, affect consumer behavior. Despite the rise in gas prices, fuel is still relatively cheap in the United States compared with, say, Europe, where prices are approaching $10 per gallon. So what will we drive in 2030? There may be more electric cars on the road, but we’ll also likely see progress in fuel efficiency, particularly as cars become lighter.

The discussion also addressed the challenges of funding energy research, as well as finding customers who can buy in enough quantity to make an impact on the marketplace. J. Craig Venter, a biofuels advocate who is best known for leading the effort to sequence the human genome, said that the government is more interested in funding “me-too” science than breakthrough research. But Tom Hicks, the Navy’s deputy assistant secretary for energy, argued that the military can be an engine of change. The Navy, for instance, has transitioned from sails to coal to oil to nuclear power. Hicks says the Navy can’t wait until 2030 for alternative fuels to become viable; it aims to get one-half of its energy from alternative sources by 2020.  

The event’s participants also emphasized that consumers have to learn to adjust their currently held beliefs about alternative energy. Intellectual Ventures’ Nathan Myhrvold appeared in a video to promote nuclear technology; perhaps, he says, we could burn nuclear waste as fuel. Anthony Tether, former director of the military research agency DARPA, also spoke in favor of decentralized nuclear power. But after the Fukushima disaster, will the public be too wary? Again, 2030 may be too soon for nuclear power to gain widespread public acceptance. But by 2050 or 2080, the technology might have advanced enough to give us all a feeling of security.

You can watch “What Will Turn Us On in 2030?” in its entirety (all eight hours!) online. And for more on our energy future, check out the four articles Slate published in conjunction with the event.

Our Incredibly Dull Energy Future: Even if we make big strides toward clean energy, the future won’t look very different from today,” by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Alms for the Rich: How policies meant to promote alternative energies are actually hurting the middle class,” by Lisa Margonelli.

From Dung Power to Solar Power: How billions without electrical access will benefit from clean energy,” by Charles Kenny.

Don’t Count Oil Out: Alternatives energies won’t replace oil, gas, and coal any time soon,” by Robert Bryce.