Not too long ago, the role of energy in our life was pretty simple: our electricity came from a big utility, owned (in part or in whole) by some level of government, and fuel came from one of the handful of big oil companies. Energy was available and reliable. We occasionally grumbled about prices, though for the most part, energy supply and management rarely made it into casual conversation. For good reason, this is changing - and changing in a fundamental way. Energy has entered a new era. But before examining this energy industry shift, let’s look at another established sector and the fundamental changes that occurred there, which have had an undeniable impact on our lives.
That industry is communications. In the past (actually, in the not-so-distant past), there were one or two big names that took care of all of our communication needs. We had a telephone number, a telephone (usually rented from the telephone company) and, for “mobile” needs, pay phones that allowed us to call ‘anyone from any place at any time’ (provided that a telephone booth was accessible and working). Sure, “long distance” was expensive, and an “overseas” call was a cost people incurred only once or twice a year. But it worked: the telephone seamlessly integrated into our lives and everyday activities. One or two big names managing the system, and one monthly bill. Simple and reliable.
That was then - and this is now! Communications is very different. Land-lines are becoming a thing of the past. Technology has freed our connection to the cord. We now truly can call anyone, from anywhere, at anytime- whether sitting on a beach or riding a ski lift. But communications is no longer limited to the sound of our voice. We have email, texting, BBM-ing and 140 characters of our thoughts instantaneously tweeted to the universe. All this from the palm of our hands, with a device far smarter than this author.
We don’t need to understand what the electrical engineers did to enable these novel forms of communication, but we do need to appreciate that, by doing so, they completely reshaped communications as we knew it. They also spawned a new segment of the communications industry with economic horsepower unlike any ever seen. Cisco, Apple, RIM? In 1975, I had never heard of them; no one had. Now they form a large segment of our stock exchange value (recent events, notwithstanding!) and have products in every household. This shift also brought young ideas and fresh faces to the industry. Add to that the staggering number of other new communications companies and the resulting wealth that has been generated, and you have a compelling story about innovation fundamentally altering an industry. In less than 20 years, communications transformed, moving from a singular means of person-to-person connection controlled by a few large companies, to a multi-channel communications universe employing millions of people and integrating into every facet of our lives. Imagine a week without the internet, smart phone, Blackberry or Twitter? Can’t be done.
This brings me to the point of this discussion: energy is next. We have been accustomed to the security of energy supply via big names and large infrastructure. It’s a well-established system that has existed for as long as the communications industry. However, energy is under increasing pressure to change. It’s the environmental impact of energy; it’s the cost of energy; and, it’s the distribution of energy. There is a new generation of energy consumers who won’t settle for the way things have traditionally been done. Along with these consumer changes, governments are recognizing the strategic importance of energy and the international implications of sound energy policy. These dynamics create a perfect storm of conditions that position the energy sector for transformation and set the stage for a new energy economy.
Change will not occur through the established energy players simply revising their approach - it will be driven by organizations and innovators traditionally not involved in the energy business bringing new ideas and technologies to the table. Think of the new electrical energy grid: Samsung is installing solar panels; GE Wind Energy - a branch of General Electric - is producing wind turbines; a whole series of entrepreneurs are generating electricity from tidal power and river currents. Smart grids - developed by large, well-established technology companies such as IBM, and new nimble entrants such as GridPoint - are managing all these sources of electrical energy. Consumers are making choices as well. Bullfrog Power provides a 100% renewable electricity choice to customers in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and the Maritimes. People are buying this power because they see this as the right choice.
The primary focus here, however, is energy for transportation fuel. Currently, fuel comes from the ground. A very large infrastructure is required to deliver it, and its environmental toll is significant, particularly now that developing nations are rapidly reaching the level of fuel demand that rivals those of developed nations. Fossil fuels will not go away, but we can do better.
Better is biofuels. Biofuels, developed from plants, have the ability to capture atmospheric carbon and provide a source of carbon for fuel that is obviously not fossil-based. In the book Eating the Sun - How Plants Power the Planet, author Oliver Morton dives into the role of bioenergy and the role it can play in solving many of our energy problems and needs. Through his detailed dissection of the science of photosynthesis (much of it is fascinating, historical context of the scientific discoveries in modern plant science), we gain an understanding of how much of our ecosystem is governed by the ability of plants to cycle carbon.
It is precisely this understanding that is provoking biofuel crop development. Agriculture is the original carbon-capture business; crops are the source of reliable, clean and secure energy. More importantly, we now have the technical ability to engineer crops to be the major source of sustainable carbon supply. As with communications, we do not need to understand how bio scientists do their work, only understand that, by doing so, they are creating an opportunity to change the energy business in a fundamental way.
This change - which is already in progress - creates opportunities for new energy participants, new energy technologies, and a new economic era for energy. Those tinkering with plant genetics are the engineers of novel crops that capture carbon into structures that have energy uses. Farmers are adding ‘energy supplier’ to their job description, in addition to food supplier. Processors are delivering carbon for energy uses, not just oils for human consumption. Jobs and wealth are being created by the biofuel sector, and the positive effects are real and sustainable. In the new energy era, energy is no longer the domain of a few, but the economic future of many, with an environmental benefit for all.