Looking 20 years ahead. TTM 2014 - Future of Energy

The IEEE Technology Time Machine is just one month away

In just a month a bunch of people from different paths of life, different background but a shared curiosity about the future of technology and the drive to contribute to shape technology, will be meeting in San Jose, California, to discuss what could be next, why it may happen and why it could not happen. It is the TTM 2014, Technology Time Machine.

I take the space of this blog to share my ideas on the various topics that will be addressed, and I will be reporting back from San Jose on the discussion and ideas percolating there.

We are going to have 6 broad areas: 

- Future of Energy

- Future of Fabrication

- Future of Health Care

- Future of Humans

- Future of Networks

- Future of Processing

In this and in the following 5 posts I'll share my ideas and would love to have you comment on them as an input to the discussion in San Jose. Of course, it would be great to have you there in person to propose, dissent, argue.

1. Future of Energy

As I see it, technology will continue to progress both in ways to search for energy sources (peering below the Earth's surface to discover new bounties), to transform more effectively the energy sources in others that can be easier to store, transport and use, and in ways to require less power to do what we need to do.

More specifically, I see that many advances will be the result of an interplay of technologies and a change in the socio-economic context. This is true in general but I feel this even more so in the area of energy.

Since the Industrial evolution getting more energy has translated into an increase in the well being of countries and citizens (although with significant disparity) and policies and funding have been focusing in securing energy sources and looking for new ones. Cutting power consumption requires money and depresses the economy and wellbeing of citizens.

However, my bet is that by the end of the next decade the wind will change and we will dedicate much more focus on finding ways to decrease energy use than to increase its availability (at low cost).

There is plenty of room at the bottom, according to Richard Feynman, and our use of energy is orders of magnitude greater than the one Nature needs. I can walk 3.5 mile s on the energy provided by an average cookie, but I'll need hundreds of cookie bags of equivalent energy to drive the same distance by car.

Technologies like graphene are going to make energy usage more efficient, lower voltage (less than 0.5V) circuits will become feasible, energy harvesting through scavenging will become the norm approaching the dream of "zero energy consumption" (which, of course, is impossible, blame the second law of thermodynamics...).

Dematerialisation (moving from atoms to bits and manipulating bits rather than atoms) will also contribute to slashing energy needs. 

I am not so naive to believe that by 2035 we will be using less energy than we are using today (collectively) but the energy use will be more equally dispersed, not like today where the average person in Bangladesh uses 3kWh a day and one in the US uses 250kWh a day (if we were not using any technology or products using technology to be manufactured we would use 1kWh a day).

In order to sustain an average use of energy across the Earth, the use in US and Europe (as well as in most developed countries) will need to decrease (to about 65kWh a day)and that will have to take place without affecting negatively the economy and the well-being of citizens. This is the real challenge in front of us in the energy area, and I trust technology evolution along with better policy and cultural awareness can make this possibile.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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