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Energy as a national security strategy – added incentives to build a carbon zero world

What is the outlook for the energy industry for the next decade?

I have advised many of the largest green energy companies and traditional energy companies on the future. 

In “The Future of Almost Everything” published in 2019, I warned that unstable prices would create a lot of chaos in future for energy companies, and I was right.

Energy forecasts always have to be seen in the context of the global economy, geopolitics, technology, innovation, urbanisation, migration and social transformation.

I wrote in 2019 that we would be likely to see unstable oil prices with all kinds of supply and demand shocks, and prices ranging from above $180 to below $40. Just so.

And I also wrote that these price convulsions would drive many green energy companies out of business, which is what is already happening.

Every time energy prices fluctuate wildly, investors get scared about longer term value.

So what next?

More nations will decide that energy independence is a primary national security objective as a direct result of Russian military aggression against Ukraine.

Expect sharp increases in government subsidies for green tech innovation – saving energy and producing carbon-free power.

But at the same time, some nations will tear up their short term commitments to carbon reduction, opening up coal power stations for example, just to survive the 2022-2024 energy chaos.

* "Life with AI - How to survive and succeed in a super-smart world" - Patrick Dixon's latest book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world, including the impact of AI on the future energy industry.

Energy as a weapon of war

For many years, Russia has regarded its energy industry as a key strategic weapon in protecting its national security interests, even at risk of damaging its own economy severely.

This really is nothing new.

It was recognised as a major threat by the Pentagon back in 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration realised that America was very vulnerable to a wide range of disruptions, including energy market shocks.

They decided that America would become energy independent at high speed – to be protected from hostile actions by potential rogue nations including Russia and the Middle East.

This led to a rapid investment and innovation boom – oil, gas, solar, wind, biofuels.

Fracking alone by US companies increased the proven gas reserves of the whole world from 80 to 200 years in just six years.

Meanwhile, as we have seen, Europe remained in denial, especially those close geographically to Russia, sleepwalking into danger with no backup plans for Russian disruption to their gas supplies.

That is changed permanently.

Never again in the next 100 years will Russia be allowed to exert such huge economic pressure on European nations as the major supplier of a scarce and vitally needed commodity.

Trust by developed nations in Russia as a reliable partner is unlikely to be restored while President Putin is in power.

Biofuels – food and fuels form single market

Food price rises caused by the Russian attacks on Ukraine are likely to trigger unrest and even topple governments in several nations around the world.

Growth of the biofuels industry has created a major hazard, just as I have warned about many times in the past.

10% of all global grain harvests last year were be burnt in vehicles, including 40% of US corn.

The EU burnt up enough food to feed 150 million people, in vehicles each year – around 12 million tons of grain – at a time when 500 million were hungry.

This situation means that whenever oil prices rise in future, food prices rise too.

That’s because oil and grain are now essentially part of the same global market.

So here is a double danger. Russian military action, and reactions to it, not only caused chaos and shortages in global energy markets in 2022, but also put at risk 25% of the world’s wheat harvest which is normally shipped from Ukraine.

Boom in hydrogen economy

It is increasingly clear that it will be hugely challenging to convert hundreds of millions of existing homes in colder nations to 100% electric heating.

As our world gears up to carbon-less power on a massive scale, expect huge investment in solar or wind to hydrogen projects, linked to heating homes in cities.

Hydrogen is not only a convenient alternative to natural gas, but is also a useful energy store on windy or sunny days.

I was doubtful a decade ago about the practical problems of hydrogen (storage, leakage, less calories of heat per cubic metre) but we are finding new ways to overcome these.

Many parts of the world have no shortage of solar power.

Indeed, an area of 80km by 50km of desert in America could power most of that nation, while a similar area of the Middle East desert could power the whole of Europe.

It’s all a question of scale

In my book SustainAgility, I showed that even with no more green tech innovations, we would be able to tackle climate change in effective and affordable ways just by rolling out at vast scale the tools we already have.

Because with scale comes reduced cost.

And with reduced cost comes increased volume.

Take Paris for example, looking down recently from the Eiffel Tower you can see vast areas of beautiful stone-clad buildings, with relatively flat roofs: hidden roof spaces, which would be ideal for solar.

Yet hardly a solar panel in sight.

But a time is coming when the economic will shift significantly.

In a decade or two, expect such a high view to reveal vast areas of solar generation, much of which will already have paid back investment costs, so providing those owners with 100% free energy.

In such a world, expect solar panels over every car park, on every factory roof, as wall cladding and so on.

But to make all that work will require huge investment by utility companies in new networking and power distribution, so that energy can flow in any direction at any time, across a community, region or continent.

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