Policies or Technology? The Key to a Sustainable Energy Future

Credit: Getty.

The chicken or the egg? The cart or the horse? Should policy or technology take the lead? It is not a reasonable question when it comes to deciding where the keys to a sustainable energy future lay—we need both.

Meeting that energy challenge is fundamental to maintaining our current way of life and fulfilling the growing energy needs of the rest of the world. About 1.3 billion people globally live in energy poverty—that is, they lack access to sufficient energy for basic needs and are forced to rely on the most primitive forms of energy such as wood burning and waste, as well as expending an excessive amount of time collecting these fuels. Another 2 billion or more people will be added to the world’s population in the next 50 years, many of them in the developing world, compounding the difficulty of providing sufficient energy to meet their needs.

Creating a sustainable energy future—one that meets the demands of a growing population while addressing the challenges posed by concerns about a warming climate—is arguably the world’s greatest challenge. Finding solutions will be difficult, and it won’t happen unless we consider both the needs and concerns of the energy-intensive developed world and those of developing nations where the majority of population growth will occur.

Sustainable energy will require three components: Access and reliable supply; affordability and cost effectiveness in a competitive marketplace; and environmentally responsible production, transportation, and consumption of energy. In the US and other developed countries, we too often take the first two as a given and focus exclusively on the impact to air, land, water, and communities as the keys to sustainable energy.

Much of the rest of the world is not as fortunate, a fact we must incorporate into any solutions for long-term sustainability. How do we get there? Policies, laws, business mechanisms, and regulations can drive behavior and shape the operating landscape, but another key enabler cannot be ignored.

That is technology.

Today, 80% of the world’s energy is supplied by fossil fuels, and the International Energy Agency has projected that demand for energy will double in 50 years. There will be an unprecedented amount of wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies deployed globally in that timeframe. Even so, IEA forecasts that the heightened demand will require that 80% of the world’s energy 50 years from now will continue to be supplied from fossil fuels. Incredible global growth will demand it.

Technology will be key both to expanding access to renewable energy and to reducing the environmental impacts associated with oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. It is the transformative key, and investment in technology is a must.

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