A confluence of trends in energy could finally begin to be felt more widely on farms in the next decade. Although farmers have focused on transportation energy for good reason, electricity generation is prepared
to shift radically as well.
Some of the factors are familiar enough to be boring. For instance, solar energy has been oversold for decades, and most of us discount projected growth curves. Yet part of this premature dismissal is because of the exponential nature of the curve. To be competitive alternatives to coal—our main source for electricity until recently—these new energy sources had to solve issues of cost and distribution.
Energy Solutions Snowball. As we saw with ethanol, these types of problems get solved piecemeal, with the cumulative effect enabling faster improvement. Experts and important energy consumers are taking notice and making big bets on everything from batteries to wind energy. The curve is starting up.
Solar power has been the most prominent winner in this long climb to profitability. Rooftops in California are being covered with now-affordable photovoltaic (PV) panels, with installation spreading across the Southwest.
Coupled with new battery technology, especially liquid aluminum and LiOH, the concept of homes going off the grid is finally something other than a nerd dream. The plummeting cost of PV panels has been ascribed to Chinese overproduction, but other manufacturers in Europe and Southeast Asia are actually driving the decline.
Although colorful leaders such as Elon Musk of Tesla inspire engineers and investors, they also trigger skepticism from folks who have heard too much for too long about getting energy from something other than fire. Those voices have become quieter recently; the sheer volume of wealth pouring into alternative energy commands its own respect. There is Tesla’s new $5 billion battery factory under construction, for example, or the announcement from BMW that it will produce only electric cars by 2025.
As car manufacturers switch, they propel battery technology, building a virtuous circle of feedback for home solar and wind power adoption. New 140-meter turbines, for example, are pushing the capacity factor for wind energy over 60%.
Much attention is given to the infamous “war on coal,” but most experts agree we haven’t identified the combatants correctly: $1 natural gas and 4¢ wind and solar electricity are the real threats, not EPA. Best of all, they are now far less dependent on subsidies.
I think the shift could show up in many ways:
- Solar plus batteries equals power. It will soon be feasible to provide farmstead energy from PV panels balanced with large batteries in the machine shed with backup from diesel or liquid propane generators.
- More towers and pylons will be built. More efficient eminent domain procedures and larger financial inducements could speed construction of taller wind farms and high-voltage DC grids.
- Electric cars will become commonplace. Many of us will eventually sit in whisper-quiet vehicles because of personal choice. The unexpected decline in gas consumption will struggle to reverse.
- Internal combustion engines will remain. Despite research into applications such as heavy trucks and farm machinery, internal combustion will still dominate those uses for the foreseeable future.
Economics Justify Change. All this will occur in conjunction with growing concern over carbon emissions. Regulations aside, significant changes in energy economics and engineering seem solid enough to plan on them. It will begin on farms with early adopters being objects of ridicule and curiosity. Not too long after, though, it will be considered an obvious development we all “just knew” would happen.