The future of energy and its impact on sustainable development

By Daniil Filipenco

The future of energy and its impact on sustainable development

Fossil energy sources have traditionally been associated with wealth and income with the leaders of international politics and the economic sectors of oil, coal and natural gas being the drivers of the industrial revolution. Today, these non-renewable resources are among the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

As the effects of climate change increasingly affect people, the need to switch to greener energy sources is becoming imperative. This is not only necessary for the environment, but it is also becoming more and more feasible economically as the price of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, continues to decrease.

Energy is an essential component of sustainable development. Its greener forms help to lessen the negative effects on the environment while also promoting economic growth and helping to alleviate poverty. Access to energy improves living standards and encourages technological advances to achieve a more environmentally friendly future.

However, reaching the 2030 targets set by the UN for the seventh Sustainable Development Goal – affordable and clean energy (SDG7) – will be extremely difficult due, in part, to the influence of the fossil fuel sector which shapes the economy of every nation, be it developing or developed.

China contributes the most to global greenhouse gas emissions, next to the U.S. Although China was not previously among the top emitters worldwide, over the past few decades, it has skyrocketed in this regard due to rapid economic development. Even so, historically the United States of America continues to be the world’s largest carbon polluter.

Renewable energy: What does the future hold?

Many expect the use of renewable resources such as wind, sunlight, geothermal energy, and tides to be the key to the energy of the future. Without a doubt, the future is renewable. Today, these sources of energy are not simply options – they are now becoming essential components of the power grid.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of wind and solar energy has significantly decreased over the years, making these resources more affordable than they previously were.

In 2030, clean technologies will play a much bigger part in the energy system than they currently do according to the World Energy Outlook (WEO) – the most reliable global energy analysis and forecasting entity. In the near future, it is expected that:

  • There will be about ten times as many electric vehicles as there are on the road today (26 million EVs).
  • Photovoltaic parks will produce more power than the U.S. power system currently does.
  • The volume of investments in offshore wind projects will exceed investments in gas and coal-fired power facilities by three times.

All these improvements rely solely on the current policies of global governments remaining in place.

Energy efficiency trends

Although renewable energy is increasing in popularity and accessibility, the world is still experiencing a global energy crisis, as reported by World Energy Outlook 2022. The rising costs of coal, gas, and oil account for 90% of the increasing price of electricity.

An analysis undertaken by the International Energy Agency found that the energy crisis brought about by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has resulted in Europe’s capacity for renewable energy being increased by 40% in 2024.

By 2030, almost 100 million homes worldwide will be dependent on rooftop solar photovoltaics.

What should we expect in terms of sustainable development and the evolution of the energy sector?

1️⃣ Artificial intelligence in the energy sector

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a crucial component of energy system optimization, being able to improve grid management and power consumption and predict the output of renewable energy.

Experts believe that, if used wisely and responsibly, AI has the potential to promote sustainable growth by lowering poverty and inequality, improving environmental sustainability, and inspiring people.

How exactly can AI help in the energy sector?

  • It can determine the most suitable regions for wind and solar plants, offering data on site effectiveness, as well as the potential risks linked to harsh weather events. AI also has the potential to forecast bird migration and flying patterns which can then influence the installation and maintenance of wind farms and reduce their impact on biodiversity.
  • By delivering more precise wind and sunlight weather forecasts, AI can also help in plant management, which can ultimately lead to better projections of anticipated production.
  • Via remote monitoring systems, AI can accurately forecast the likelihood of a plant breakdown so that preventative maintenance can be undertaken before it happens.
  • Through performance data examination, AI can potentially optimize production. For instance, more accurate water flow estimates in hydropower can contribute to waste reduction and increased output.

2️⃣ Smart grids and energy efficiency

Smart grids employ digital technology that allows the transmission of energy to be monitored and administered. In addition, renewable energy sources can be integrated into the grid thanks to smart grid technology.

In view of the fact that AI can analyze weather conditions, it can help smart grids to optimize the use of renewable resources.

Smart grids improve the generation, transfer, and usage of electricity through the use of real-time data and complex analytics, thereby reducing energy losses and improving the efficiency of the system. These smart technologies minimize disruptions by rerouting power, identifying problems, and facilitating rapid repair.

For instance, when there’s a need for high levels of energy, smart grids have the ability to adjust energy distribution without human intervention, thus fulfilling the energy demand without the risk of system overload.

Understanding the smart power grid

3️⃣ Emphasizing energy storage

Effective ways to store energy are becoming more and more important as the demand for consistent, dependable, and sustainable energy sources increases. This is why we are witnessing new developments in battery technology such as flow and solid-state batteries. These technologies can store power from the sun and wind, making it available anytime.

Exploring Thermal Energy (TES) Storage

Thermal energy storage is an alternative way to store and release heat energy. It enables energy to be harnessed from natural sources by using the power they produce to create a “thermal battery” that is capable of preserving heat for several hours or even a few days. This stored power can be employed to produce electricity on demand.

Exploring Pumped Hydroelectric Storage (PHS)

During periods of high electricity production from renewable sources and low electrical consumption (such as on sunny and windy days), PHS uses this cheap electricity to lift water from a lower reservoir to a higher one. After the water has been lifted, it becomes the source of power for the turbines that are powered by this same water running back down. Thus, a surplus in electrical capacity can be affordably and effectively kept and released when necessary.

Understanding PHS

4️⃣ Decentralization of energy systems

Decentralized energy systems, in which energy is generated near its point of consumption rather than at massive, centralized power plants, are becoming more and more popular. This can increase consumer control over power use while reducing the amount of wasted energy during transmission.

A wide range of technologies, such as rooftop solar panels, microturbines, small wind turbines, micro- and nanogrids, as well as community-based initiatives to generate electricity from renewable sources, are examples of decentralization.

5️⃣ Emphasizing hydrogen use

The use of hydrogen energy as a renewable energy source for industries such as transportation is growing in popularity. Although there are still obstacles to overcome, for instance, infrastructure and high costs, hydrogen offers a viable path towards lower carbon emissions.

A McKinsey study states that by 2050, hydrogen could account for over 20% of an annual reduction in global emissions.

Over 1,000 large-scale hydrogen programs involving US$320 billion in direct investments have been officially declared worldwide as of May 2023.

The investment required is the main barrier that prevents hydrogen from making a significant contribution to carbon neutrality. By the end of the decade, $460 billion more in direct investments in hydrogen will be needed to move towards a net zero energy infrastructure.

Final word

The future of energy and sustainable development looks promising but remains challenging. It will take the coordinated effort of people, companies, and governments to achieve a sustainable energy sector that will drive development. Creating conditions for a future that is environmentally friendly and profitable for everybody is not an unattainable target if more attention is paid to renewable energy, efficiency, and innovation.