There are many independent streams of technological progress currently underway in the field of energy. I have written several individual articles on various breakthroughs in lighting, electic cars, ethanol, etc. But the time has come for a 'grand unifying' article that combines these seemingly unrelated innovations into a timeline for when we can expect which advances to have a measurable impact.
I hereby present a possible future timeline for disruptive improvements in energy technology, economics, and mass market adoption.
2007 : China's greenhouse gas emissions surpass that of the US. China requires 4.3 times as much energy as the US to produce each dollar of GDP.
2007-09 : Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs and Light Emitting Diodes begin to replace incandescent bulbs across the US. By 2010, the typical US household is saving over $100 per year in electricity costs.
2007-10 : Corn-based ethanol continues to generate only a small percentage of vehicle fuel in the US, despite the governmental support behind it.
2010 : Hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electrical cars represent 5% of total new automobiles sold in the US, even if tax incentives have been a large stimulus. There are concerns about the load on the electrical grid from all of these new cars drawing power from ordinary home outlets, but given the massive reduction in household electricity consumed by lighting, this surplus nicely offsets the electrical demands of plug-in cars.
2011 : Thousands of wind turbines have been erected across Alaska, Canada, Russia, and the northern waters of Europe by now. Some European countries now derive over 25% of their electricity from wind.
2012 : Cellulostic ethanol technology becomes cost-effective and scalable. Biomass-derived fueling stations finally begin to find their way into most US population centers, but still displace only 15-20% of US gasoline consumption. New oil extraction technologies continue to exert downward pressure on oil prices, resulting in a continual tussle between biomass fuel and oil-derived fuel for cost competitiveness. All of this is bad news for oil-producing dictatorships.
2013 : Tesla Motors releases a fully electric 4-door sedan that is available for just $40,000, which is only 33% more than the $30,000 that the typical fully-loaded gasoline-only V6 Accord or Camry sells for in 2013.
2014 : Solar panels have become inexpensive enough for a typical house in California or Arizona to financially break even in under 5 years after installation, even after accounting for the cost of capital. Over 3 million US single-family homes have solar panels on their rooftops by now, and many of these homes are able to charge up their plug-in hybrids or fully electric vehicles entirely free of cost.
2015 : As predicted in early 2006 on The Futurist, a 4-door sedan with a 240 hp engine, yet costing only 5 cents/mile to operate (the equivalent of 60 mpg of gasoline), is widely available for $35,000 (which is within the middle-class price band by 2015 under moderate assumptions for economic growth). This is the result of not only energy innovation, but also lighter, stronger nanomaterials being used in some body components, as well as computerized systems that make energy usage more efficient within the car.
2016 : Large industrial-grade solar panels, enhanced with nanotechnology, achieve unprecedented conversion rates of solar energy to electricity. The US has completed the construction of major solar farms in California, Nevada, and Arizona, collectively covering hundreds of square miles of desert land. Similar farms are under construction in Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Sahara Desert countries. 10% of world electricity demand is now met through photovoltaics.
2018 : Among new cars sold, gasoline-only vehicles are now a minority. Millions of electricity-only vehicles are charged through solar panels on a daily basis, relieving those consumers of a fuel expenditure that was as high as $2000/year in 2007. Even when sunlight is obscured and the grid is used, some electrical vehicles cost as little as 1 cent/mile to operate.
2020 : Gasoline fuels under one third of the passenger car miles driven in the US. Electricity and biomass fuels account for the remaining two-thirds, with electricity being the one crowding the other two out (electricity itself is primarily derived through solar, wind, and nuclear sources by now). US total oil consumption, in barrels, has decreased only somewhat, however, due to commercial airline flights (which still use petroleum-derived fuels). At the same time, oil consumption in relation to total US GDP is actually under half of what it was in 2007.
2025-30 : Electricity (indeed, clean electricity) now fuels nearly all passenger car miles driven in the US. There is no longer any significant fuel consumption cost associated with driving a car, although battery maintenance is a new aspect of car ownership. The average car weighs only 60% as much as the 2007 counterpart, but yet is over twice as resistant to dents. Most cars are self-driven by on-board intelligence, so human drivers can literally sleep in the car while being delivered to their destination.
Wind, solar, and nuclear technologies collectively generate 75% of the world's electricity needs.
Crude oil is, however, still used to create jet fuel. Since some passenger jets are capable of hypersonic speeds, oil consumption remains significant in this area.
Worldwide energy consumption is now 75% higher than what it was in 2007, moving us from 0.71 to 0.74 on the Kardashev scale.
Is this timeline too optimistic? I found this research report from Clean Edge that goes out to 2016, and they project that renewable energy industry revenue will grow by 15% a year from 2006 to 2016.
Let's see how closely reality matches this timeline.
Update (9/15/07) : Seven months after I created this timeline, BusinessWeek has a slideshow that predicts the impact of many of the same technologies. In fact, CFLs, LEDs, the Tesla Roadster, Plug-in Hybrids, etc. are all items I wrote about even earlier.