You probably can’t live without your smartphone, your tablet and your favorite websites. But few Americans realize just how much energy these new devices and other technologies consume. Where will the power come from? Alongside the digital technology revolution, there has been a tech revolution in power generation that has transformed where American power comes from.
Here are five points about the transformation of electricity generation in the United States.
The growth of energy consumption in the U.S. is close to flat. But Americans are as dependent on electricity as they’ve ever been.
Energy consumption in the U.S. is expected to grow just 1% over the next 20 years. By 2035, per capita energy consumption could be the lowest on record. But Americans are also more plugged in than ever before, relying on smart phones and other devices that use vast quantities of electricity. In North America, electricity generation will account for 70 percent of net energy demand growth over the next 20 years. Groundbreaking websites like Facebook and Google also consume large amounts of power. In 2013, Facebook alone used almost 822 million kilowatt hours of electricity, equal to the energy used annually by about 75,000 American homes, according to numbers from Facebook and U.S. Energy Information Administration. These devices and websites are all new power consumers, which create new demand, even as existing consumers of electrical power become more efficient and consume less. These paradigm-shifting behaviors mean electricity and electricity generation are and will remain as crucial as they’ve ever been before.
Innovation has unlocked vast reserves of natural gas in the United States.
Technological innovation isn’t limited to social networks, search engines and smart phones. Technological advances have opened vast, newly accessible reserves of natural gas. Shale gas production, in particular, is expected to grow by 164 percent over the next twenty years. These new production methods could allow the U.S. to become a net exporter of natural gas for the first time ever by 2016.
America’s abundant supply of natural gas will be used to power the U.S. electrical grid.
Due to its abundance and low cost, natural gas is quickly becoming the new energy of choice for electrical power generation. In 2013, 22 percent of electrical power in North America came from gas, while 39 percent came from coal. By 2035 the share of electricity generated from gas in North America is projected to rise to 33 percent as coal declines to 18 percent. Like the technology revolution that brought us the iPhone and the Tesla Model S, this sea change in power generation is driven by technological innovation. And it is partly because of this transition from coal to cleaner natural gas that in 2035 U.S. carbon emissions could be at their lowest levels since 1986.
Renewables will begin to generate an increasing amount of the nation’s electricity.
While the percentage of power generated from natural gas is rising rapidly, power from renewables is growing even faster. The percentage of electricity generated from renewables is predicted to grow by 194 percent over the next two decades, tripling from 3 percent today to 9 percent in 2035. Again, technological innovation will play a crucial role in this growth. The cost of renewable energy is expected to fall significantly because of technological advances, learning-by-doing and economies of scale. Both solar photovoltaic and wind power appear to be following well-established learning and price curves, with costs falling rapidly as production increases.
The future is full of new electricity-powered gadgets and services.
We are rapidly moving into a wired world where gadgets and devices are an increasingly pervasive and indispensable part of everyday life. The tablets and smartphones of today will soon be joined by virtual reality devices, wearable health monitors like the Fitbit and more — all parts of what technologists refer to as the “internet of things.” Meanwhile companies like Nest are attempting to make entire homes “smart,” and companies like Amazon are increasingly turning to robots to run warehouses and other fulfillment services. Even as power consumption becomes more efficient, all of these new consumers of electrical power will keep the demand for cheap and reliable electrical power high for decades to come.