Policy Horizons Canada worked with futurist and data visualizer Michell Zappa of Envisioning to produce a report called MetaScan 3: Emerging Technologies and accompanying infographics. We are reproducing the summary for emerging energy technologies.
Below are technologies related to energy under three key areas of accelerating change: Storage, Smart grid and Electricity generation. Energy storage involves new, cost-effective ways of storing energy, either in improved batteries, as new fuels or other ways. A smart grid is a set of technologies that pairs information with moving electricity around, enabling more efficient generation and use of energy. Electricity generation is characterised by technologies that generate power from unused sources and that more efficiently produce electric power or fuels from sources in use today.
We have included predictions based on consultation with experts of when each technology will be scientifically viable (the kind of stuff that Google, governments, and universities develop), mainstream (when VCs and startups widely invest in it), and financially viable (when the technology is generally available on Kickstarter).
Fuel cells: Unlike batteries, fuel cells require a constant source of fuel and oxygen to run, but they can produce electricity continually for as long as these inputs are supplied. They inherently displace the need for natural gas turbines, and are ideally used for stationary power generation or large passenger vehicles such as buses (especially at energy-dense future iterations of the technology).
Scientifically viable in 2013; mainstream in 2015; and financially viable in 2016.
Lithium-air batteries: Advances in materials technology is enabling the advance of high energy Li-air batteries which promise an energy density that rivals gasoline, offering a five-fold increase compared to traditional Li-Ion batteries. By using atmospheric oxygen instead of an internal oxidizer, these batteries could dramatically extend electric vehicle range.
Scientifically viable in 2017; mainstream in 2018; and financially viable in 2020.
Hydrogen energy storage & transport: Hypothetical evolution of existing power grids, transporting and storing hydrogen instead of electricity. Could be used in combination with various kinds of energy transformation methods, minimising loss and maximizing storage capacity.
Scientifically viable in 2019; mainstream in 2021; and financially viable in 2022.
Thermal storage: Often accumulated from active solar collector or from combined heat and power plants, and transferred to insulated repositories for use later in various applications, such as space heating, domestic or process water heating.
Scientifically viable in 2022; mainstream in 2024; and financially viable in 2027.
First-generation smart grid: Electrical meters that record consumption of electric energy in real time while communicating the information back to the utility for monitoring and billing purposes. Can be used for remote load-balancing such as disabling non-essential devices at peak usage
Scientifically viable in 2014; mainstream in 2015; and financially viable in 2016.
Distributed generation: Generates electricity from many small energy sources instead of large centralized facilities. Centralized power plants offer economies of scale, but waste power during transmission, and are inefficient in rapidly adapting to grid needs.
Scientifically viable in 2017; mainstream in 2021; and financially viable in 2022.
Smart energy network: Speculative global energy & power infrastructure and set of standards which can be used interchangeably. Could theoretically mimic characteristics of the Internet in channeling heat, energy, natural gas (and conceivably hydrogen) from local and distant sources depending on global demand.
Scientifically viable in 2019; mainstream and financially viable in 2020.
Tidal turbines: A form of hydropower that converts tidal energy into electricity. Currently used in small scale, with the potential for great expansion.
Scientifically viable in 2015; mainstream and financially viable in 2017.
Micro stirling engines: Micrometer sized power generators that transform energy into compression and expansion strokes. Could hypothetically be 3D-printed on the fly and cover entire heat-generating surfaces in order to generate power.
Scientifically viable in 2020; mainstream in 2026; and financially viable in 2027.
Solar panel positioning robots: Small-scale robots able to re-position solar panels depending on weather conditions. More efficient than attaching each panel to motorised tracking assemblies.
Scientifically viable in 2014; mainstream in 2016; and financially viable in 2017.
Second-generation biofuels: New biofuel technologies, such as cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel from microalgae, promise to produce conventional fuel-compatible energy at low or zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientifically viable in 2016; mainstream in 2017; and financially viable in 2021.
Photovoltaic transparent glass: Glass with integrated solar cells which converts IR and some visible light into electricity. This means that the power for an entire building can be supplemented using the roof and façade areas.
Scientifically viable in 2017; mainstream in 2020; and financially viable in 2021.
Third-generation biofuels: Moving beyond today’s organisms, 3rd generation biofuels involve genetic modification of organisms to produce new fuels by unconventional means. Examples include direct production of hydrogen from highly efficient algae, and production of energy-dense furans for automotive use.
Scientifically viable in 2022; mainstream in 2024; and financially viable in 2025.
Space-based solar power: Collecting solar power in space, beamed back as microwaves to the surface. A projected benefit of such a system is much higher collection rates than what is possible on earth. In space, transmission of solar energy is unaffected by the filtering effects of atmospheric gasses.
Scientifically viable in 2025; mainstream in 2027; and financially viable in 2028+.
Micro-nuclear reactors: A small, sealed version of a nuclear reactor (approximately a few tens of meters in length) capable of being shipped or flown to a site. Currently able to provide 10 MW of power, plans are for 50 MW capacity in the near future.
Scientifically viable in 2022; mainstream and financially viable in 2023.
Inertial confinement fusion (break-even): An approach to fusion that relies on the inertia of the fuel mass to provide confinement. To achieve conditions under which inertial confinement is sufficient for efficient thermonuclear burn, a capsule (generally a spherical shell) containing thermonuclear fuel is compressed in an implosion process to conditions of high density and temperature.
Scientifically viable in 2013; mainstream and financially viable in 2021.
Thorium Reactor: Thorium can be used as fuel in a nuclear reactor, allowing it to be used to produce nuclear fuel in a breeder reactor. Some benefits are that thorium produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste and comes out of the ground as a 100% pure, usable isotope, which does not require enrichment.
Scientifically viable in 2025; mainstream in 2026; and financially viable in 2027.