powering 10 billion

The electrifying challenge of powering 10 billion people

With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, global political and economic systems must prepare for significant shifts. Next-generation renewable energies and radical changes to numerous sectors are needed to keep the planet plugged in.

Text: Lorelei Yang Photo: 123RF

If your neighbourhood feels crowded now, consider this: the UN estimates that the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and around 11 billion by the end of the century. This population explosion presents some obvious challenges: Food, land and water resource are finite, so ensuring there’s enough of these things to go around is critical.

Another concern: ensuring there’s enough energy to power this global growth. In a 2017 article in the magazine Anthropocene, science journalist W. Wayt Gibbs hypothesised that everyone in the world will use energy at the same rate as the typical American by the end of the century – 9.5-kilowatt hours over the course of a year. Based on this estimate, global energy demand will shoot up to 70 terawatt hours in 2100 (versus 18 terawatt-hours consumed in 2016).

Electricity first, and the rest will follow

In his 2008 book Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman contended that global warming, globalisation and population growth would converge to necessitate clean energy and green technology. This prediction has proven prescient, as clean energy adoption globally is ramping up to address climate change concerns.

Green hydrogen, wind lenses and nature-distilled algae biofuels are only a few of the innovations in the pipeline. Governments, corporations, organisations and individuals are all taking steps towards a sustainable energy future. For instance, Ikea – better known for cheap modular furniture than scientific innovation – is getting in on the renewable energy game with Solarville, a solar micro-grid enabling people to sell their excess energy to others on a blockchain-powered platform. 

Marco Wirèn, President at Wärtsilä Energy Business, notes that the most transformative innovations to date have been in wind and solar energy, which have seen costs come down significantly, to the point of reaching grid parity in two-thirds of the world. This has already completely changed thinking around how to build affordable, sustainable and reliable electricity grids. Managed properly, the shift to renewable and green energy in a broad range of industries should be attainable without significant additional costs passed on to customers.

To Wirén, the fast-evolving renewables and energy storage space holds both peril and opportunity. “On the one hand, the quickly-evolving landscape makes it tough to make investment decisions over the long term. At the same time, the fact that renewables, together with flexibility, is the cheapest way to produce electricity creates immense opportunity for those ready to embrace the new way of thinking in the electricity market,” Wirén says.

Futuristic technologies to rise to the challenge

When considering how to power 10 billion people without destroying the planet, one ‘new’ solution that has been around for over a century is to simply electrify everything. This broad, economy-wide electrification, which would entail using electricity to replace existing energy sources for space heating, water heating and transportation, is expected to play a major role in decarbonising the future economy. Energy-intensive heavy machinery, such as heavy-duty trucks, buses, industrial boilers and process heating, are prime targets for electrification. 

However, experts warn that not all electric technologies are cost-effective, and some may have a long way to go to reach parity with incumbent technologies on a pure cost-comparison basis. The good news is that organisations around the world are actively working on solutions to bridge this gap.

Lauri Puro, General Manager in Wärtsilä’s Energy Business Strategy group sees the most transformative potential in Power-to-X technologies (P2X). He says, “As renewables become cheaper and cheaper and more of them are added to the grids, inevitably you’ll have moments with excess renewable energy no matter what you do – first you’ll store in batteries, but at a certain point, you’ll even exceed battery capacity. At that point, energy essentially becomes “free” raw material. For example, you can use the excess electrical energy and CO straight out of the air to create fuel and use the fuel later.”

If developed correctly, P2X holds significant potential for accelerating the rate of electrification across industries. “P2X creates an opportunity for the electricity industry to act as a catalyst for other industries to become sustainable, including the ones that are hard to electrify otherwise,” Puro says.

A new global energy order

Jim Carroll, one of the world’s leading global futurists, says that there are a number of encouraging signs in the energy space. He says the rapid pace of technological innovation in the energy field, Silicon Valley’s burgeoning interest in the world’s energy challenges and the dispersion of capital through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are all converging to help ideas come to fruition much more quickly than before. 

Carroll cites several cutting-edge technologies that are on the horizon, including growing solar cells from plants (currently being researched at MIT), solar-generating building glass, electrified roads and the use of electric vehicles as daytime energy storage that sends energy back into the grid at night.  

Another development is increasing interest from the energy industry in the idea of decentralised energy production (“microgrids”), in which energy is produced closer to consumption points, such as on the rooftops of homes. This idea has become more popular than the idea of “super-grids,” which would connect large areas’ energy grids to distribute supplies over larger areas. 

As the world shifts to renewables and non-fossil fuel energy sources, traditional oil powers may wane in geopolitical importance and be replaced by renewable energy leaders. Industrial powers like China, Germany, Japan and the US could benefit almost immediately if they continue leading the way in wind and solar energy development. 

Countries with growth potential for renewable energy generation could also see their status rise. Desert-rich countries with vast developable areas for solar and wind such as Morocco and Mongolia could eventually see an increase in their strategic importance. 

While we can already foresee vast fields of windmills and photovoltaic panels powering the world’s population in the future, even more exotic power generation methods may come into play sooner than we think, turning the stuff of science fiction into reality.