There are a lot of exciting things happening in the world of electrical engineering technology. What might be most exciting is how the potential developments of today will drive tomorrow. For example, how will the technologies of today change what power sources look like in 2064? Luckily, the writers at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering's (commonly called IEEE or I-triple-E) Spectrum magazine recently explored this issue and others as part of a special report that marked the 50th anniversary of the magazine. If everything goes the way they hope, the future could be one of individuals and businesses being able to have more control over their own individual power sources.
Investment in grid decentralization
Pointing to towns like Denver's northern neighbor, Fort Collins, Colorado the article examines how the possibility of net-zero-energy neighborhoods and districts is increasing. The cost of alternative energy sources like wind and solar power continue to fall, making it more possible for individuals and businesses to rely on them. The hope is that in the future more and more people will produce as much – or more – energy as they use, creating a more sustainable future. Engineers in places like Fort Collins are furiously working to make that happen, according to the article.
To make all that happen, engineers [in Fort Collins] are preparing to aggressively deploy an array of advanced energy technologies, including combined-cycle gas turbines to replace aging coal-fired plants, as well as rooftop solar photovoltaics, community-supported solar gardens, wind turbines, thermal and electricity storage, microgrids, and energy-efficiency schemes.
The rise of an interactive network
While a future where everyone is using sustainable energy sounds good, it does have a possible immediate drawback. The current system is fairly reactionary. Which means that each time an individual starts using a sustainable source, like photovoltaic cells, the current grid takes a hit as it accommodates a new power output. Additionally when people (or companies) are producing their own energy, the network reads it as a reduction in energy use and cannot ramp back up again should that individual source of energy be lost suddenly. Some engineers say that in order to counteract that issue, smart inverters and individual electronics and appliances are needed that can interact with each other as well as respond swiftly to changes in energy levels.
One challenge: the rigidity of the current system
The article takes a look at another challenge facing those who work with electrical engineering technology. The current grid is rigid and full of expensive coal plants. And, while some countries are inching toward sustainable energy sources, many still rely on coal.
Even if all these changes come to pass, the grid in 2064 will still look a lot like today's grid in some key ways. Big coal plants, for instance, will remain a large part of the energy mix. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's International Energy Outlook 2013, the United States, Australia, and many other countries will retire their aging coal plants, but other countries will continue to build new ones. China, already the world's leading coal user, will add about 530 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity by 2040, the report projects. And so coal's share of electricity generation worldwide in 2040 will likely be just a few percentage points below what it was in 2010.
In the end, no one can completely predict what will happen by 2064. But, the technologies available today are promising and engineers continue to look for new ways to make a sustainable energy future possible.
If you are interested in learning about the other predictions IIIE hopes will come true, check out their 50th Anniversary Special: "The Future We Deserve."