The Energetic Future

Solving the power problems of the 21st century will mean letting go of some cherished myths

3 min read

Since 1900, Vaclav Smil tells us in his suggestive but frustrating new book, the amount of energy produced and consumed by the world has grown 12-fold--from about 35 million trillion joules (exajoules) to 400 EJ. If that trend were to continue, by 2100 the world would be consuming 5000 EJ, if you are able to imagine on the scale that Smil habitually does.

Obviously, this isn't going to happen, if only because of limited material resources. But how is growth to be limited, and how can the escalating needs of the world's growing population be satisfied without running out of fuels, wreaking havoc with ecosystems, and ruining the climate? The answers are not pat, and fittingly Smil claims not to "rigidly forecast or arrogantly prescribe," though he does confess to a "propensity to doubt and to judge."

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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