Walk through the doors of your average electric cooperative in 25 years and at first it might not seem like much has changed. Member service reps will still be fielding inquiries; managers and their employees will still be making plans; line crews will still be heading out into the field.
But a panel of industry experts and futurists interviewed by RE Magazine say if you look closer, you’ll see electric co-ops and an entire power sector that have been transformed by technological innovation and changing public priorities and expectations.
Of course, nobody can be sure how the future will turn out. After all, while the world was waiting for long-promised flying cars, the iPhone showed up and heralded an unforeseen era of handheld computers. The next 25 years, say the experts, will surely bring similar surprises.
“There are companies that do not yet exist that will build products not yet conceived using materials not yet discovered with methodologies not yet invented,” says Jim Carroll, a futurist and innovations expert.
Emerging technologies, robust research and data, and larger forces within society already are at work shaping our energy future, the experts note, providing an emerging picture of what cooperatives and the industry as a whole could look like a quarter-century from now.
That typical electric co-op, for example, will almost certainly have a very different mix of employees. Data management, IT, and analytics specialists all will assume greater roles as they manage mountains of information coming in from countless sensors and other smart devices on both sides of the meter.
Drone operators piloting craft that have lidar and infrared sensors along with high-definition cameras will be ubiquitous. And they will all be helped by a tireless employee of another kind: artificial intelligence (AI) software that sorts through vast amounts of data to point to areas of need.
“The technology that’s going to define the 21st century is artificial intelligence, not for decision-making, but in filtering information,” says Craig Miller, NRECA’s chief scientist.
New capabilities will mean co-ops have much greater insights into how energy is being used on their systems. With 5G cellular and broadband, both almost certain to be commonplace well before 2045, they will also be able to share those insights with members in ever-more-creative ways.
“We have the potential, through our technology, to have an almost continuous dialogue with our members,” Miller says. “We don’t want to annoy them, but we can interact appropriately when things are behaving abnormally, when things are trending in the wrong direction.”
Miller and others are confident that while more powerful computing will be transformational, it won’t obviate the need for co-op employees, particularly in the field.
“As long as we have wires and poles, you’re going to have lineworkers,” says Steve Collier, vice president of business solutions and smart grid connections at
Conexon, LLC. “But they’re going to be much better informed about what’s going on on the grid because the co-op is going to be monitoring the grid much more closely.”
That grid will be radically different 25 years from now, say Miller and others, in ways that will change how electric co-ops serve their members.
Renewables and storage
It’s hardly news that solar panels and wind turbines have been proliferating across the American landscape. None of the analysts expect that to change. The U.S. Department of Energy projects renewable generation will be the fastest-growing source of electricity through 2050, spurred by a continuing decline in the cost of solar and wind power and by state renewable mandates and federal incentives.
But the limitations that have held back renewable generation—its intermittent nature and, until recently, a price premium—already are being addressed. Analysts expect this shift to accelerate.
“The reality is that the cost of renewables, wind, solar, tidal, you name it—the cost is collapsing,” Carroll says. “In the long run, if you’re talking 25 years, money drives everything, and with renewables, the (financial) case just overwhelms carbon.”
New or improved renewable generation sources are also on the horizon, including ones that take greater advantage of geothermal energy or tidal forces and radically different photovoltaic panels, including transparent window coverings that can convert sunlight to power.
Several new battery technologies also have the potential to provide longer-term power on days when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.
“The evolution of battery science is occurring at a staggering pace,” Carroll says. “Batteries fundamentally change what we can do with renewables. They eliminate the issues that come with reliability of energy production.”
To that end, electric cooperatives are working with NRECA on initiatives to lead the industry in storage adoption, including a new project with U.S. Department of Energy to test battery systems at military bases.
Another NRECA project, the
Advancing Energy Access for All initiative, helps co-ops ensure the benefits of renewables and storage are extended to their low- and moderate-income members.
Salim Ismail, the author of Exponential Organizations and founder of OpenExO, a consulting firm focused on helping businesses transform to meet the future, sees potential in emerging energy technologies. One company, he says, is creating a “vertical battery” where excess electricity is used to raise a weight, which can be released later to generate electricity as it descends. Other firms are working on molten-salt batteries, where a saline solution with strong heat retention properties can store energy and release it when needed.
Another potentially transformative option is the “aqueous air battery” being tested by
Great River Energy. It promises to revolutionize grid-level renewables use by providing affordable, long-term energy storage.
Researchers are also working on improved batteries for household and personal use.
“There’s a whole bunch of a new class of batteries still in the lab based on graphene, which can store energy very well,” Ismail says.
Significant investment in new battery technology is expected because of the scale of the potential rewards, he notes.
“Whoever solves the storage problem is literally a trillionaire.”
Still, in the nearer-term, lithium-ion batteries, which have fallen nearly 90 percent in cost in the last decade, are likely to remain the principal option for residential storage. So far, home electricity storage is rare, but as prices decline, analysts see more consumers taking the plunge.
“It’s pretty obvious that we’re going to a Tesla Powerwall-type of concept. For residential use, you’ll have a solar panel, or a set of solar panels, a Powerwall, and a backup to your utility,” Ismail says.
That configuration, Ismail and others note, leads to a significant evolution in the relationship between a co-op and its members.
The rise of DIY Consumers
A future where average Americans are generating and storing more of their own electricity is one where they have taken greater control of responsibilities that have traditionally belonged to electric co-ops and other utilities.
Miller says you can see the growing appeal of a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach as renewables, particularly solar, and batteries take hold.
“In energy, people are getting the idea they can go DIY, and they’re trying. It’s not easy. Trying to go off grid is genuinely hard work,” he says. “But it gets easier every year.”
Combined with other technological advances, that transition dramatically changes decision-making and operations on the grid.
“The net effect is the electrical grid is not going to be the domain of a few specialists,” Miller says. “It’s going to consist of a vast number of non-specialists who are empowered by the power of their tools, their smart devices, their end-use devices, their rooftop solar.”
Part of the challenge will be the changing degree of consumer involvement.
“We’ll have all kinds of people with different levels of skill and different levels of interest,” Miller says. “We will have people who generate power. We will have people who operate as third-party intermediaries [between individuals who want to buy or sell power]. We will have people who just simply manage their own power based on price signals.”
As consumers take a DIY approach, Collier believes that electric utilities will face competition from unexpected places. He says he once asked an Amazon executive if, eventually, you might be able to buy electricity through Amazon Prime.
“He looked at me quizzically and said, ‘I’m not going to say you’re not.’”
Ismail foresees consumers eventually trading power back and forth between each other on a “blockchain-based micro-exchange” that allows them to sell electricity without going through an intermediary such as their local utility.
Blockchain, essentially a series of secure data blocks that provide a digital, time-stamped record of transactions, “gives you auditability and gives you a distributed record,” Ismail explains. That means you could post the availability of an excess kilowatt hour on the exchange, and blockchain would provide a record of any sale or trade of that power without the need for a central accounting system.
Down the road, Ismail says, he can imagine a future where households are generating and storing enough electricity, and sharing it among themselves, so that they don’t need a traditional electricity provider.
Miller notes that even if DIY becomes widespread and systems are 99 percent reliable, consumers still could be without electricity three or four days a year. Most homes and businesses will maintain a connection with the grid for backup, he says, but the relationship with the co-op or other electric utility, no longer necessarily the principal power supplier, will change.
“What the utility is going to be is the entity that’s the guarantor of reliability,” Miller says. “It’s a challenging job, and it’s harder than what we’ve done now.”
That relationship will be complicated by what analysts say is likely to be the changing shape of demand.
A world of new demand
U.S. electricity consumption has been relatively flat for more than a decade, a result of increasing efficiency in industry and household use. But experts see an ever more plugged-in and always-on world spurring new growth in the coming decades.
On a national scale, concern about climate change is likely to drive a continued shift away from carbon-based fuels and toward electricity, says M. Granger Morgan, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
“One the obvious strategies for dealing with decarbonization is electrification, using it for industry, using it for transportation,” Morgan says. “So I think there’s a reasonably good prospect that demand will start growing again.”
That growth depends in part on “decarbonizing the grid,” he adds, moving toward cleaner electricity sources.
Electric vehicles account for 2 percent of U.S. purchases, but sales are increasing, and several factors make faster market penetration likely. California, the nation’s largest vehicle market, recently announced a mandate that all new vehicles sold in the state by 2035 be emissions free, which means either electric or hydrogen fuel-cell.
Not surprisingly, all the major automakers have multiple EV models in their production plans. Prices are coming down at the same time as EV ranges, the biggest concern of consumers, are growing. Even before California’s announcement, Bloomberg New Energy Finance was predicting EVs would account for 61 percent of all U.S. passenger vehicle sales by 2040.
“Electric vehicles represent a sea change,” Collier says.
They will transform co-op operations in two ways, he predicts. EVs are being designed with internet addresses, so the software can be updated wirelessly, which makes them controllable power sources.
“I’ve got this really cool device that not only demands sales,” he says, “but if I need to control the grid, I’ve got a battery out there I can use.”
Scott Tinker, an economic geologist and energy expert at the University of Texas, notes that the interconnected world we live in, with data stored in the cloud and widespread streaming of videos and music, consumes a huge amount of electricity. The data centers operated by Google, Amazon, Apple and other companies that make the cloud possible, for example, already consume up to 3 percent of the world’s electricity.
“Video streaming alone, globally, uses more electricity than all the world’s trains. Bitcoin uses more electricity than the country of Austria,” Tinker says. “We have things happening now in the world that are giant consumers of electricity and very different from what we’ve had in the past, and they’re only going to grow.”
Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist at the
Future Today Institute, sees other advances in technology creating new demand. For example, she points to distributed computing, in which a processing-intensive task is farmed out to a network of computers, becoming commercially mainstreamed.
“What’s coming is a distributed computing network that allows you to download an app and sell your unused time, sell the unused computing time from your device, essentially while you’re sleeping and you’re not using it,” she says.
Desktops, laptops, tablets, and smart phones all have processing capability that could be sold when not being used by owners. Webb points to college towns as an example of how that could transform power use as tens of thousands of tech-savvy students take advantage of the opportunity to earn a few dollars.
“Those devices, even if they’re low energy, they’re running all the time. … Imagine a lot of smart homes full of devices running all the time,” Webb says. “That becomes a problem. It’s a weird, squiggly problem that nobody is thinking about.”
Work and leisure behavior is also changing, she notes, a shift accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic in which several major companies have announced plans for employees to work at home permanently. Americans are also investing in more in-home entertainment options: home video projection systems, video gaming hardware, and the like.
“The challenge is that consumption models are always based on recent history,” she says, and the virus is accelerating a shift in electricity use co-ops will have to take into account.
The effect of climate change
Several analysts see global climate change looming over the future of electric utilities.
“It gets you from both sides,” Morgan says. “It means I’ve got to figure out how to make my generation mix less carbon intensive, and it also means I’ve got to figure out how to make my distribution systems more resilient in the face of what are likely to be more severe storms.”
Morgan points to the more intense and more frequent wildfires and stronger, wetter hurricanes as the kind of destructive weather associated with climate change that can have a costly impact on electric distribution systems if they’re not hardened.
A study by McKinsey & Company looked at storm-damage costs for utilities over the last two decades in eight coastal states and estimated that those costs will grow considerably over the next 30 years. But the study also found that investments to make the utilities’ systems more resistant to the effects of climate change would more than pay for themselves in reduced damage.
Webb believes climate change is also likely to lead to broader societal changes that have implications for electric utilities.
“The next order of climate change is a pretty dramatic shift in migration patterns,” she says. “We are seeing enough consistent problems with hurricanes and fires that it is probable that more people will move inland than to the coasts.”
Co-ops and other power suppliers need to prepare for climate-based migration that changes their communities, she continues, particularly rural areas that could see a significant increase in residents whose lifestyles include more devices and heavier power use.
Viable fossil fuels
The future can seem a lot greener when considering the projected growth of renewables. But Tinker predicts that fossil fuels will continue to be used to generate electricity in the next 25 years, even if on a reduced scale.
He believes natural gas will still play a role in U.S. baseload generation, while on a global scale, he sees countries building new coal, oil, and nuclear plants. China and other still-industrializing nations are rapidly expanding electric generation to meet their growing needs, and less developed nations are working to provide power to the 1 billion people worldwide who still don’t have access to reliable electricity. Renewables alone cannot handle that need, he says.
Carbon capture also has the potential to transform the use of fossil fuels in coming years, Tinker says. He adds that research indicates “it’s certainly feasible at scale to put large amounts of carbon back into the ground,” although these projects initially may require government incentives.
An emerging field called synthetic biology could also help, Webb says.
“There’s quite a bit of research right now in developing enzymes and other processes, biological in nature, engineered biology, that can help mitigate carbon by eating it.”
She sees a proliferation of power options ahead.
“The United Kingdom just had its first hydrogen-powered train make a trip,” she says. “There are adjacent types of energies to what we currently use that will probably be entering the market in some way or another.”
Tinker also sees hydrogen fuel cells playing a larger role.
“I don’t know why we’re not talking about them more,” he says. “In addition to batteries, they make great sense. If you listen to the auto companies—not Tesla, but others—they’re going back and taking a look at fuel cells again.”
Ismail, however, believes hydrogen’s future is limited: “Hydrogen is super useful for high-density uses like trains, buses, farm equipment, and it might find niche uses there.”
But he believes the growth of solar and other clean energy sources will reduce demand for fossil fuels so significantly that the investment in infrastructure required to make hydrogen a widespread fuel in their place won’t make sense.
Nuclear power’s economics have suffered due to cheap natural gas and falling prices for renewable energy, but small modular reactors, safer and cheaper, could spark a renaissance, notes Tinker. Webb points out that Russia recently launched a small floating reactor on a ship as a mobile generating platform.
A radical transformation in the energy industry would take place if nuclear fusion, which could provide clean, almost limitless power, became feasible. Research continues on fusion around the world, including commitments to develop the technology in the United Kingdom and Italy by 2040 and 2050, respectively.
“It’s eventually going to happen,” Tinker says.
Whether its fusion, advances in fuel cells, battery technology, or something completely unknown today, experts agree that the next quarter-century will be one of unprecedented change and will transform the power industry and electric cooperatives.