emerging energy technologies

Virtually every day corporate and university press releases tout the latest technological breakthroughs that will revolutionize the energy sector. Ultimately, some of these innovations will find niche markets, but they generally lack one or more crucial characteristics that make fossil fuels so addictive to a growth-obsessed society.

Thanks to rising oil prices and growing concern about climate change, myriad new energy technologies have emerged in recent years; many are hyped as “game-changing” alternatives to fossil fuels. Freeing society from fossil fuel dependence is undoubtedly a crucial objective, but no single new technology or incremental improvement in existing technology is likely to be the silver bullet that cornucopians expect the market to produce.

Most new energy technologies have significant technical challenges that keep their net energy ratio (energy return on energy invested) relatively low. Wave and tidal power schemes need to operate in corrosive salt water over vast areas under extreme conditions. Algal biofuel needs just the right mix of sun, water, and nutrients and may be difficult to produce at industrial scales. Next-generation solar and wind power relies on scarce or constrained resources like tellurium, gallium, and indium. Fusion power seems perpetually only twenty years from being commercially feasible.

Optimists argue that given sufficient research and development, new energy technologies will evolve, economies of scale will be realized, and costs will be reduced. Very likely this is true, to some degree. Technology improvements will certainly happen. And, much like wind and solar power, there will be specific markets in which these technologies will be useful and possibly even come to dominate. But the fact is, fossil fuels have superlative energy density, versatility, and high net energy (the early conventional oil and coal industries, for example, realized EROEIs of 50:1 or even 100:1). Moreover, our massive globalized economy perches atop a century’s worth of physical infrastructure that was built to run on fossil fuels. Emerging energy technologies generally fail in one or more of the crucial categories in which fossil fuels excel: energy density, accessibility, transportability, storability, and sheer abundance.

So while tomorrow’s technologies may reduce the toxic effects of the current energy economy, there is no miracle cure for a system that needs structural reform. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of emerging technologies is the hope they instill in us that technology can ultimately defeat all environmental limits, allowing economic and population growth to continue exponentially, indefinitely. In a finite world, that is a false hope.