Not too long ago the role of energy in our life was pretty simple: electricity came from a big utility, usually owned by some sort of government or municipality, and fuel came from one of the big oil companies that dotted the landscape. We occasionally grumbled about prices and generally went along without much fanfare. For the most part, energy supply and management rarely made it to the level of casual conversation; energy was available and reliable, and didn’t really require much thought for the average consumer. A few well-known corporate names took care of our energy needs and energy was there on demand. No fuss, no worry, no problem. But it’s changing, and changing in a very fundamental way.
Before getting into that discussion, it’s worth talking about how these fundamental changes can occur in established sectors and how they bring about a permanent and lasting impact on our lives.
Think about communications. In the not-so-distant past, one or two big names took care of all of our communication needs. We had a telephone number, a telephone (usually owned by the telephone company and rented from them) and for convenience and “mobile” needs, pay phones that allowed us to call essentially anyone, from any place, at any time (provided that a telephone booth was available and working). Sure, long distance was expensive, and often “overseas” was a cost people only incurred once or twice a year, but it worked. Telephones were integrated into our lives and became part of our everyday activities: Simple, reliable and convenient. One or two big names managing the system, one monthly bill and everything worked fine.
That was then. Now communications is very different. Landlines are becoming a thing of the past. Technology has freed us from the cord. Sure we can call anyone, anytime from anywhere – even while on vacation sitting on a beach. But it’s not just the sound of our voice; we have email, internet, entertainment, commerce and 140 characters of our instantaneous thoughts “Tweeted” to the waiting universe. All from the palm of our hand, with a device that is far smarter than this author. You don’t need to understand what electrical engineers did to make those electrons move around and behave, but you should appreciate that what they did completely reshaped communications. In doing so they spawned an economic engine with horsepower that grew an industry unlike anything ever seen; a whole new industry that simply wasn’t there before. Apple, Cisco, Microsoft? In 1975, I never heard of them. No one did. Now they form the basis of a large segment of our stock exchange value and have products in every household. Add to that the staggering number of companies that are now in communications and the wealth that has been created and you have a very compelling story. Young ideas, fresh faces and people starting out after college were allowed to create a vision for the world and make that vision a reality. In less than 20 years, communications went from a few big names controlling the sector to a new vision that is integrated into every facet of our lives and employs millions of people. Imagine a week without the internet, cell phone, Twitter, Facebook or Google. Can’t do it. Communications now belongs to everyone and those in the communications business seek to please the people, engage new businesses and opportunities – not simply provide that landline and a monthly bill.
This brings me to my real reason for this discussion.
Energy is next. We have been accustomed to a secure energy supply via big names and large infrastructure. It’s a well-established system that has existed for as long as the communications industry. However, energy is under increasing pressure to change. It’s the environment, the sense of limited influence, the cost of energy and the distribution of energy along societal and national lines. Customers are changing and a new generation of energy consumers won’t settle for the way things have been done in the past. Along with this new consumer attitude, governments are recognizing the strategic importance of energy and the international implications of sound energy policy. It’s a perfect storm of conditions positioning the energy sector for real change and a new energy economy.
The change will not be through the established infrastructure; it will be through innovation and new names and faces that have traditionally not been in the energy business. Think of the grid: Samsung is putting in solar panels in Ontario, wind farms have sprung up across the landscape, a whole series of entrepreneurs are generating electricity from tidal power and river currents, managing power with smart grids, and developing a whole series of technologies to manage, deliver and create electricity. Consumers are making choices as well. Bullfrog Power provides a 100 per cent renewable electricity choice to customers in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and the Maritimes and people are buying this power because they see this as the appropriate choice. More and more electricity is being augmented by alternative sources and the traditional utilities are responding by accepting this augmentation, supplied by a host of new companies providing a renewable source of electrical power. It will create more jobs and growth, bringing new ideas and technologies to an established sector. It’s starting to grow and will continue to grow.
The real focus for this discourse is energy for transportation fuels. Right now, fuel comes from the ground, delivered by a very large infrastructure. But we can do better. Fossil fuels will not go away, but they have their drawbacks and cannot escape the increasing scrutiny for their impact on the environment. Too many people, too much carbon being released into an already burdened atmosphere, by a rapidly increasing lifestyle in developing nations that have learned to consume at a rate reached long ago by developed nations. Changing consumer attitudes means fuel efficiency and economy are primary influences in automobile choices, eschewing horsepower and speed.
The reality is, fuels need to be seen as part of the solution to mitigate the release of carbon into the atmosphere and we have the tools to do so: they are called biofuels. Crops have the ability to capture atmospheric carbon and provide a non-fossil-based and carbon-neutral source of carbon for fuels. In the book “Eating the Sun – How Plants Power the Planet,” author Oliver Morton dives into the role of bioenergy and the impact it can have in solving many of our energy problems and needs. His detailed dissection of the science of photosynthesis (he includes a fascinating historical context of the scientific discoveries in modern plant science), helps the reader understand just how much of our world is governed by the ability of plants to cycle carbon. It is precisely that understanding which is fomenting biofuel crop development. As in communications, one does not need to understand how the technology works; only that by doing so, crop engineers are creating an opportunity to fundamentally change the energy business by capturing and moving carbon in new ways – and adding in new ideas and participants.
This will mean a fundamental change in the number and nature of participants in the energy sector. Those who tinker with crop genetics will be the engineers of new crops that capture carbon into structures with energy uses. No longer restricted to growing food, farmers will also be energy suppliers who use modern farming techniques with modern crops to multi-task agriculture into a much larger economic engine. Processors will be in the business of delivering carbon for energy uses. New job opportunities and wealth can be created within a new infrastructure, providing real and sustainable benefits to society and embraced by all. Just as innovation in communications has created a whole new world of smart phones and apps, energy innovation (and in particular biofuel production) will create a new world in clean fuels and environmental benefits.
Already, most of our automobile fuel is 10 per cent biofuel and this is just the start. We have the technical ability to engineer crops as major suppliers of our carbon and to do this in a way that’s good for the environment and creates new jobs and wealth for the nation. Right now the most efficient means to capture carbon is to plant a seed. Crops are really very good at taking free solar energy and using it to create a heap of usable carbon – and that’s before crop engineers’ improvements to make the process even more efficient. We know how technical advances can fundamentally reshape a sector and the role that new crops and agriculture can play in energy is now becoming well understood. If we want reliable, clean and secure energy, we need to embrace the tools that we have in agriculture to make that happen. We won’t run out of sunshine and agriculture is the original carbon capture business. The time is now, the impact real and the opportunity significant. Energy will no longer be the domain of the few; it will be the effort and dreams of many, making our lives and environment better.