Can Renewable Energy Visions of the Future Actually Be Within Reach?

It’s an August morning, 2032. You lean over the side of your organic mattress and turn off your electric alarm clock. The fragrance of free-trade certified coffee fills the air. Soon you’re taking a shower warmed by an electric hot water heater. Rejuvenated and ready, you exit your building, unplug your car, and quietly zoom away to your breakfast meeting. Such visions of the future seem fairly achievable, don’t they?

The passage of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the US has opened up hope that this is just a start, that other renewable energy and sustainability visions of the future might be within our grasps.

What could 2032 look like to you?

Let’s pretend to look into an all-electric crystal ball and see the social and lifestyle changes that could become commonplace if renewable energy were to become society’s default.

Sustainable Life in 2023 — Visions for the Future

On that all-electric ride to work in 2032, you see more than half of new cars on the road are EVs like yours. Along the way, there’s EV charging available nearly every mile of your trip, with most former gas stations either shuttered or serving dual gas pumping and electric charging purposes. You slow as an electric mail truck turns to make deliveries.

A little while further down the road, you see a line of workers queuing into a huge battery factory. You’ve heard they’re working double shifts to meet demand.

You pass one of those formerly high polluting heavy trucks that services ports and sprawling logistics centers; now that it’s electrified, the truck is efficient, clean, and nearly soundless.

There’s a huge recycling center near one of the off-ramps. With plastic production bans taking hold across most of the states, recreating existing plastics into products has become big business. The ragman of the past is now becoming a wealthy entrepreneur.

You smile when you see the activity around the former natural gas plant. After new local building codes to block the use of fossil fuels went into effect, you weren’t surprised to learn that the town mothers and fathers were going to decommission the plant. As you pass it by, you identify its waterfront access; so that’s why ideas that are floating around to use the site as a base for offshore power generation and staging.

After work, you’ll stop by your mom’s apartment in a multi-family complex. She’s so happy that she’s warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than years ago — and the advancement of energy building codes make her costs on par with or lower than fossil fueled buildings. With heat pumps for water and space heating and energy efficient electric appliances, she feels secure and satisfied.

Your mom’s building utilizes community solar, but it still isn’t available everywhere. Your friends who work remotely from rural areas have applied available (and hefty) rebates to install individual solar panels on their roofs. Some friends even have signed up for pilot projects to have solar windows. They just wish that the waiting lists weren’t so long.

As you drive, you plan your evening meal. Your induction cooktop is fast, so cooking isn’t a chore. You’re grateful to know that you no longer have harmful indoor pollutants floating through the home from a gas-powered stove. Your CSA has offered several interesting plant-based recipes about cooking with sorghum, a highly drought-tolerant crop, and you’ve been testing out this ancient grain for your gluten-free friends — a Greek sorghum veggie bowl sounds yummy for tonight’s repast.

After dinner, you plan to sit down and research your next big trip. With decarbonization of air travel coming along very slowly — sustainable aviation fuel isn’t making the dent that was promised — you’ll take a group sailing trip with some close friends. The essence of the ocean surrounding you, local foods prepared simply, and reconnecting with the natural world will certainly be relaxing and invigorating.

What’s the Data behind these Visions of the Future?

Are these pipe dreams? Not necessarily. As Canary Media outlined so succinctly, the IRA will give a major boost to grid energy storage, invigorate solar, transform the market for home electrification, kickstart efforts to decarbonize air travel, provide funds to purchase clean electric mail trucks, dedicate $60 billion to environmental justice efforts, and revolutionize manufacturing for solar, wind and batteries.

Here is some data to back up the dreams.

Electric water heaters are safe, according to South Central Power. There is no threat of carbon monoxide poisoning, combustion, or explosion. Electric water heaters are environmentally friendly and capable of using electricity generated from solar, wind, hydro, and other renewable sources. They’re easy to install and require no expensive gas lines, exhaust flue, or on-site fuel tanks. Compared to other fuels, the cost of electricity is stable. In addition, electric water heaters are emerging as a building block of the future electric grid. These formerly mundane units are evolving into smart appliances and energy storage units that are helping the grid become more stable and more efficient. By heating water when demand for electricity is low and storing the thermal energy for later use, electric water heaters can save you money.

Battery factory growth: Batteries are emerging as a critical ingredient in the transition to a more sustainable future because of their role in electrifying transportation and balancing power grids. The US Department of Energy announced $3.1 billion in funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It will be designated to make more batteries and components, bolster domestic supply chains, create good-paying jobs, and help lower costs for families. The infrastructure investments will support the creation of new, retrofitted, and expanded commercial facilities as well as manufacturing demonstrations and battery recycling. McKinsey & Company forecast that the market for battery cells will grow, on average, by more than 20% per year until 2030, reaching at least $360 billion globally.

Decarbonizing air travel: Air travel accounts for around 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. If action isn’t taken now, it could represent up to 22% of global emissions by 2050 as other industries decarbonize at a faster pace. Promisingly, the International Air Transport Association, inclusive of nearly 300 airlines, approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Shell commissioned a white paper that acknowledges the aviation industry can and needs to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. It outlines a sectoral approach where governments, business, and civil society work together to achieve real and meaningful progress. This approach — where airlines, engine and airplane manufacturers, airports, governments, financial community, and those who benefit from flying work together — is a way for the megacorporation to avoid taking responsibility for all-electric air travel for short hops. More can and should be done to work toward decarbonizing air travel.

Regenerative farming, sustainable agriculture: In total, the IRA provides about $40 billion to agriculture — specifically aimed at helping farmers of different sizes and at creating more diverse agricultural systems — $4 billion to boost drought resilience, $14 billion set aside for rural clean energy and economic growth, $5 billion to fight wildfires and increase carbon sequestration projects, and $2.2 billion for aid to farmers who’ve experienced discrimination from the US Department of Agriculture.

More and more people surveyed seem to want to provide financial incentives that encourage farmers to adopt regenerative practices and verify that they are taking those actions, such as no-till farming or planting cover crops. Those actions help store carbon in the soil while also reducing erosion, helping water quality, and enhancing or creating wildlife habitat. Sorghum in place of corn due to drought has the potential to be a winner. Its advantages are that it does not need to be irrigated, requires no pesticides, and needs only a third of the fertilizer that wheat requires.

The recycling/recreating process for plastics requires chemical upcycling of polymers — the process of selectively converting discarded plastics into chemicals, fuels, or materials with higher value. It holds promise to change the paradigm for discarded plastic from waste to valued resource. A significant opportunity exists for fundamental research to provide the foundational knowledge required to move toward a circular lifecycle for plastics, in which the chemical constituents of plastics are reformed into polymers or repurposed to give them another life.

In the meantime, recreating new items by manufacturing directly from waste as an end product is making the news, giving a completely different value to the original material.

Water & wetlands: Restoring wetlands, coastal areas, forests, prairies, and grasslands can help store carbon, act as natural defenses to absorb rain during storms, provide wildlife habitat, and help filter pollutants from rivers and streams.

Final Thoughts

Julian Brave NoiseCat, a climate and Indigenous advocate, told Bloomberg that he hopes by the next decade we’ll look back at the IRA as a first step. The bill gets the US “sufficiently down the road politically,” he says, by cutting emissions so that better government policy can follow later this decade. “I think there is legitimate concern that communities that were impacted by polluted land and left behind by the fossil fuel economy are not getting sufficient investment in this bill to benefit from a cleaner economy,” he notes. He also concedes that “this bill marks a close in generational politics on climate change.”

Forward climate momentum is happening quickly around us. As reported by the Washington Post, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has signed a major climate and clean energy bill that contains sweeping policies targeting renewables, transportation, and fossil fuels — a move that lawmakers and advocates say is critical to supporting the state’s goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.


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