Electricity – the energy of the 21st century

Electricity – the energy of the 21st century

16 October 2018
Electricity energymix EnergyTransition environment RenewableEnergy
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Between now and at least 2050, the combination of high population growth, strong economic development, increased demand for foodstuffs, equipment and transport, and a boom in all forms of automation and digitisation will inevitably trigger a rise in demand for energy. This will mainly be for electricity, which is currently the only form of energy that can meet not only future needs and uses but also the challenges of climate change.

We have to face the fact that that even if we achieve significant energy savings by insulating buildings and optimising our transport, industry and urban management systems, energy consumption can only increase between now and 2050.

There are two main trends fuelling this rise. First, high population growth. According to the UN, there will be almost 10 billion people on the planet in 2050, compared with 7.55 billion today. In 30 years’ time, Africa’s population will have doubled to 2.5 million, Asia’s will total 5.3 billion and Latin America’s around 785 million. Only the population figures for Europe and North America are expected to remain stable or decrease slightly.

Meeting the needs of the new middle classes

The second trend driving the increase in energy consumption is the growth in gross world product (GWP), which experts estimate at an average of 3.4% per year. Between now and 2050, per capita GDP will increase four-fold in India, three-fold in South Africa, Indonesia and China (where it will reach the level of France’s per capita GDP for 2017, i.e. $43,400) and two-fold in Nigeria, Brazil and Russia.

Once again, this trend will mainly concern emerging and developing countries, but per capita GDP is also expected to rise in the United States, the EU and Japan, by a multiple of 0.5.

The world’s higher energy requirements will mostly stem from developing countries, where it will be necessary to meet the needs of growing populations, particularly the middle classes, whose numbers are expanding rapidly. Based on forecasts, by 2050 an estimated 4 billion people in Asia, Latin America and Africa will have joined the middle classes. And just as in developed countries today, they will be eager to spend their time and money on well-being, comfort and leisure.

By extension, food requirements will rise sharply, which will also generate large-scale energy needs. Agricultural production is expected to soar 70% by 2050, without any significant increase in the amount of cultivated land. This means that yields will have to be much higher, necessitating innovation and therefore energy.

The emergence of the new middle classes will also push up demand for consumer goods and equipment, such as clothes, furniture, household electrical goods, sound systems, telephones, televisions and other high-tech devices. This in turn will boost manufacturing and freight but in tandem will intensify these sectors’ energy needs.

The situation will be even more pronounced in the passenger transport sector, where civil aviation and car traffic is forecast to double on average by 2050. Not to mention the logical increase in the number of buses, trams, underground trains and other forms of public transport in the future. The development and upgrading of infrastructure (roads, car parks, airports, etc.) in line with these changes will also augment energy demand and use.

And lastly, these new populations – mostly city dwellers – will need homes, which will have a significant effect on the construction and use of buildings.

For all of these reasons, energy needs are set to rise 30% by 2040, primarily led by demand in China and India.

Energy used for housing, transport and manufacturing is currently responsible for 85% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly in the form of CO2, so we are going to have to seek alternatives to using coal, fuel oil, gas and petrol for our heating and transport supplies. And two thirds of the world’s electricity come from fossil fuels, which are to blame for over 40% of global CO2 emissions.

The electricity of the future needs to be generated from carbon-free sources. Luckily, nuclear energy and the main renewables that are now being developed (hydraulic, wind and solar power) do not emit any greenhouse gases. Using these energy sources is the only way that we’ll be able to meet the growing demand for electricity while reducing our carbon footprint. And this is even more the case because new technology and its new usages all feed off electricity.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy consumption will increasingly be in the form of electricity and end-demand for electricity is expected to rise by more than 60% by 2040.

Digital, robotics and home automation – new usages that need electricity

Whenever we talk about computers, tablets or smartphones we’re also talking about electricity. All of the twentieth century’s major innovations – in terms of communication, housing and production – were led by electricity, and the twenty-first century’s digital and hyper-connectivity revolution will undoubtedly follow the same route.

The global economy and people’s everyday lives are already electricity-dependent. This dependence cannot but intensify with the development of the internet of things, artificial intelligence and smart cities, and the proliferation of data centres that store increasingly massive amounts of data and which will support thousands of blockchains in the future. Based on even the most conservative of estimates, there will be 20 billion connected objects in circulation in 2020 and 50 billion in 2030. Smartphones, watches, fridges, houses, driverless cars, buildings and streets are being – and will continue to be – fitted with more and more smart sensors. All of these objects and systems will need electricity to be powered and operate in complex networks.

Meanwhile, the development of blockchains, which are particularly electricity-hungry, has been seriously under-estimated. All of the world’s blockchain technology combined already uses 47 GWh, i.e. the entire electricity output of Singapore or the power generated by four EPRs working at full capacity!

Demand for carbon-free electricity will be further amplified by the growing robotisation of our economies. Even without the humanoids and other robots that will likely be dedicated to deliveries and home services, the number of robots in manufacturing is set to almost triple by 2025.

Many challenges and a lot of engineering

Electricity is therefore the power to be – in more ways than one. But in order to develop carbon-free methods of producing it and to meet the requirements of the digital era, we will need to draw extensively on engineering know-how and innovation skills.

The movement is already underway, particularly in the transport sector where a clear turning point has been reached with the projected widespread use of electric vehicles. Automakers have fully taken on board the trends described above and have adopted strategies that are resolutely focused on electricity (including hydrogen). Several governments have also begun to take brave political decisions, such as Norway which intends to ban the sale of petrol-powered cars by 2025 (compared with 2040 for France and the UK).

In total, some 280 million electric vehicles are expected to be on the roads in 2040 versus 2 million today. And even the aeronautics and maritime industries are now taking major steps towards electric transport.

The day will undoubtedly come when we can live without electricity altogether, just as we’ll be able to live without polluting fossil fuels. But as things stand, and most likely until 2100 at least, it is only electricity and its carbon-free sources of production that can help us meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century.

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