Despite the environmental pressure to reduce our energy consumption, global demand for power is actually growing – and will keep doing so. What's behind our need for more?
The phrase "looming energy crisis" appears regularly in newspapers around the world. From the United States to India and across Europe, governments are concerned about meeting the energy needs of their people.
The requirement to cut back on fossil fuels to protect the environment is piling on the pressure worldwide. But alongside efforts to reduce energy demands, we are in fact growing more power hungry than ever. Seismic trends are driving an unprecedented period of global change, which will affect people by their millions.
By 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), demand for electricity will have increased by 30 per cent, partly because of population growth and partly because more of the people who live today without electricity will be connected 1.
Alongside this population growth will come a growing urbanization, with more people living in cities and a larger middle class in developing countries 2. Such growth won’t happen in the megacities we know now, but in hundreds of new ones in emerging nations. These will mushroom into metropolises over the next 10 years.
With urbanization comes more infrastructure. New city dwellers need homes, workplaces, hospitals, schools and transport. Much of that infrastructure will rely on battery backup for when the grid can’t cope.
Imagine commuting on a subway train in winter in just such a city when the power fails. While it’s being restored, battery backup will provide the heat to keep you warm, the lights on in the carriage and maybe even Wi-Fi so you can tell the office that you will be late. If there’s an emergency and the train must be evacuated, then the battery backup will operate the doors, too.
The pace of technological change is getting faster. Computers that a generation ago would fill a room now sit in our pockets. As computers have shrunk, so their processing power has increased and the internet has allowed them to connect with each other. The next phase, the Internet of Things, means connecting cars, buildings and many other appliances. In the future, more cities will be ‘smart’ cities, taking advantage of connected devices to move people and goods more speedily and provide services more efficiently.
In the city of the future, you might speak to your smartwatch to call for a cab. The car, a self-driving electric vehicle, arrives within moments and uses GPS to find your destination automatically. While you tend to emails on your smartphone from the back seat, the car speeds you on your way without traffic jams because the city’s sensors are monitoring traffic flow in real time and using algorithms to crunch the data and reroute vehicles to avoid delays. Sensors embedded in parking bays will give live information about where to find a space.
All of this requires power, of course: your smartwatch and smartphone, the car and the satellite it uses to get GPS coordinates, the sensors around the city and the data center the city uses to analyze traffic flows. In fact, the technology boom and our increased global connections are reliant on data centers, which will be important drivers of power demand in the future.
In 2015, data centers were responsible for three per cent of global electricity consumption. Professor Ian Bitterlin, of Britain's University of Leeds, predicts that global data centers will treble their energy demands by the middle of the next decade 3.
The benefits of the technological age are clear – and we have yet to realize them in full. However, they are set against a backdrop of rising global temperatures and the need for a concerted effort to reduce CO2 emissions. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of our age.
There are encouraging signs that renewable energy sources can provide more of the power that we need, but they pose challenges of their own. Power drawn from the wind, the sea or the sun does not come in predictable, steady supply. That requires energy storage solutions, such as batteries, to be a part of the grid, storing power in times of surplus and releasing it during any shortfall.
The IEA expects that 40 per cent of our energy will still come from fossil fuels in 2040. Batteries will play a central role in the coming years as we work to meet our energy needs in a sustainable way.
1. World Energy Outlook 2016, International Energy Agency: www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/publications/weo/WEO2016Factsheet.pdf
2. Urban Population Growth, World Health Organization: www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/
3. Data Centers to Consume Three Times as Much Energy in Next Decade, Experts Warn, Independent, 23 January 2016: www.independent.co.uk/environment/global-warming-data-centres-to-consume-three-times-as-much-energy-in-next-decade-experts-warn-a6830086.html