It’s not the Jetsons, but our energy in the future could look very differently
by Allen Best
Several municipalities in the United States can now claim to have 100 percent electrical portfolios from renewables. With that as the starting point, a panel of four speakers iTuesday night peered into the future, speculating based on their informed backgrounds, to talk about what life will be like in cities, suburbs, and even small towns as we transition from fossil fuels.
Panel moderator Jacob Smith said that the panelists at the Alliance Center were being asked to be futurists. “In other words, they’re going to speculate.”
None were wearing sunglasses, but they might have. They mostly described a happy, bright future.
“I’m wildly excited,” said Jonathan Koehn, the regional sustainability coordinator for the City of Boulder. The landscape is “rich with lots of opportunities,” he added.
Koehn described the energy future as being “dynamic, flexible, decentralized and diverse.” Energy, he said, “must be thought about broadly.”
He sees energy production being decentralized, even to a block-by-block basis. “I don’t think it will take that many years before we make every building into an energy factory,” he said.
But he also conceded limits to informed speculation, including his own. “The future will undoubtedly have characteristics we can’t imagine,” he said, before going on to describe a favored phone app called Shazam. If you hear a song you can’t quite name, just say “shazam” into your Android smartphone and the app will identify the song and artist for you, even the lyrics. “Who would have imagined this 10 years ago,” he said.
Bob Lachenmayer emphasized storage. He’s the chief operating officer of Pos-En, a smart-grid and microgrid project development firm founded in 2011 and now based in Fort Collins, Denver, and Raleigh, N.C.
“All of this energy discussion is about how we store energy,” he said. Fossil fuels can really be seen as one form of energy storage. As we shift from fossil fuels, the challenge will be to replicate their high-density storage from renewable sources in ways that serve our needs, he explained.
Sonrisa Lucero, sustainability strategist for the City of Denver, described a shift from a just-in-case energy system in homes to one of just-in-time. In other words, we currently just flip on light switches, expecting lights to go. They do, because there is always backup energy. But in the future our energy choices may be more calculated, such as allowing the dishwasher to run at 2 a.m., when more energy is available.
“Instead of energy just being something you have in your home, it will be something you’re aware of and manage,” she said.
Jocelyn Hittle, director of Denver operational initiatives for Colorado State University, focused on land use. She didn’t describe a radical shift away from current land uses, but rather modifications. As is already evident in metropolitan Denver, communities have been densifying around new light-rail and commuter-rail stations.
But as cities densify, she said, they must retain things need people, including access to natural light and natural areas. She also said that we need to think about where we want to locate our renewable energy facilities relative to the built environment.
What will the electrical grid of the future look like? Very different, suggested Koehn. “It will be evolution or revolution,” he said. The grid doesn’t have to look like it does now. “This will take regulatory reform at both state and federal levels. “Once we were homogenized, but now we want choices.”
Technology does not post the key barrier toward deep and broad transitions from energy systems with major emissions of fossil fuels, Lachenmayer said. What is needed is a different calculus for making investment decisions, one that veers away from a preoccupation on what he called “first cost” to one that considers lifecycle costs. In this consideration, renewables look much better than fossil fuels, he said.
But Lachenmayer also identified something else needed to accelerate this energy transition: a core belief that it can be done. “I think part of this is really believing we can do this,” he said. The challenge is “creating enough momentum. I’ve seen what the tech will do. The technology is there.”