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Energy Supplies and Use – How Technological Advances Affects Economic Growth

Posted February 25, 2019

Technological advances are quickly promising to present us with solutions to the biggest problems faced by the energy sector globally. The positive impact is cutting across production, distribution, and consumption of energy both in large scale and small scale.

Generally, we are at a stage in development where sustainability and low costs are the key considerations in the energy sector. Industry players have to balance these considerations with the rising demand for energy; Emerging and frontier markets are in the throes of development and are, therefore, in dire need of energy while industrialized nations already have over-the-top energy requirements and are going for sustainability and environmental conservation.

City skyscrapers. Image credit: Philipp Birmes | Free image via Pexels (Pexels license)

City skyscrapers. Image credit: Philipp Birmes | Free image via Pexels (Pexels license)

There is also the need for the developing world to learn from the experiences of their developed counterparts and expand their energy production and use in a sustainable and environmentally conscious way.

Whichever the case, the common denominator is a prudent use of technology to accelerate the achievement of energy goals to achieve economic growth and stability.

The key benefits of technology in the energy industry are mainly cost reduction and efficiency. Here is how advances in technology are affecting different sections of the energy industry.

Survey and discovery of raw materials

One of the most significant impacts that technology has had in the growth of the energy sector is in assisting the discovery of energy reserves:

– Exploration of gas, coal, and oil are good examples of the impact that technology has on the process. Gas producers can now explore cheaply and efficiently using 3D seismic technology. Although this technology is more expensive than its predecessors, it is more effective in locating the gas reserves and its benefits outweigh the capital outlay in the long run.

– In addition to exploration, technologically advanced methods are also used to locate new reserves that can be added to the old ones in oil fields where mining is already taking place.

– Oil and gas producers are also using methods like hydraulic pulsing and techniques that use radar and sonar to find the most productive locations where they can start drilling. In addition to that, they are using advanced software tools to analyze the data they collect in order to minimize the costs involved even further.

Consequently, countries that were previously assumed to lack resources are joining the fray and minimizing their reliance on the traditional energy superpowers for their energy needs. This diversification is accelerating economic growth.

Production of Energy

Technology has permeated power production in many ways over the past few decades. This has encouraged growth due to accelerated production with fewer costs.

For example, the development phase of oil and gas production used to be a considerable resource sink. Now the costs involved have been reduced drastically through the use of advanced drilling methods that facilitate the exploitation of an extensive field with fewer platforms.

In gas exploitation, better drilling methods have allowed significant savings thereby minimizing drilling expenses and encouraging growth.

Once the oil and gas have been mined, they are transported using extensive pipeline networks. A new feature that is gaining traction is the use of nano-engineered products to build stronger and lighter pipelines that last longer and are more resistant to corrosion.

Nano-tech based materials are also excellent conductors of electricity, stronger, and lighter, thus making them ideal for other uses across the energy value chain.

Consumption of Energy

Technology, particularly information technology, is making energy consumers more proactive about their consumption. Rather than consume energy with total disregard for the cost implications, individuals and corporations are keen to manage their energy usage, empowered by technology.

Consuming energy is no longer considered a passive economic act; people are now more conscious about its effects on their annual expenditure. Technology-driven information sources enable people to manage their energy use to save costs. For example, people can turn to an energy comparison site that helps them find the best rates they should be paying for their gas according to their usage and location thereby saving them money. They can also use smart meters to monitor consumption in real time and adjust accordingly.

Commercial establishments have taken the front seat in instituting energy conservation measures. These measures in most cases involve using advanced production techniques meant to extract more for the same amount of energy used. They recognize it as an important consideration because effective management of resources usually results in an improvement of their bottom line and makes them more competitive.

Besides minimizing the expenses, people and companies are concerned with the impact they have on the environment with their usage (carbon footprint) and the socio-political impact of all of it – a good example is foreign policy. People are starting to ask the energy suppliers to use more environmentally friendly ways to produce and supply energy. The only way suppliers can abide by this is by turning to technology.

Renewable and Alternative Energy sources

The main reason why unconventional, yet sustainable, energy sources are still unconventional is that we have not yet found efficient ways to harness them. The striking feature of such sources is that they are abundantly and freely available and they would really boost our environmental conservation efforts.

However, we cannot exploit their vast potential because our technologies in these fields are still in their infancy. The sources of energy that are frequently discussed in this context include:

  • The sun
  • Wind
  • Tidal energy
  • Nuclear energy (Fusion reactors?)

If we could find a way to utilize these resources, in a scalable and reliable way, we would solve all our energy problems. Technological advances needed include efficient ways of harvesting and storing solar energy, effective ways of harnessing wind and tidal energy, and development of nuclear fission reactors that are both safe and reliable. For the latter, nuclear fusion would be groundbreaking.

There are case studies of successful integration of technology in the renewable energy industry with considerable success.

  • Learning from the safety mishaps in Ukraine and Japan, scientists are developing safer nuclear (fission) reactors.
  • Wind farms are becoming more popular because better-developed wind turbines are harvesting wind energy in a more efficient way.
  • Solar power in arid areas is gaining ground. Scientists are developing more efficient solar cells to harness the resource.

Evolving renewable energy technologies promise a brighter future ahead. It is estimated that the portion of energy supplied by alternative sources will be higher in the future than it is now. This growth will only be possible if we grow our expertise in this area.

Energy Storage

Energy storage is seen as the game-changer for our energy goals. Unfortunately, energy storage mechanisms have not kept up with other elements of the energy industry. So far, we are using comparatively less-developed technologies to store our energy than we have in the past and it is curtailing growth in the renewable energy market. In fact, some experts think that it is the stumbling block to energy sustainability.

Remember, renewable energy is highly linked to energy storage; they are co-dependent. Even if we improve our ability to harvest renewable energy, it is still too irregular to be depended upon. Coupled with storage, however, it can be completely sustainable.

Take the example of solar energy; the sun does not shine the whole year and if we were to rely on it to provide energy, we would be in trouble during the off-peak seasons. Therefore, for us to use it in a sustainable way, we have to store the energy during the peak seasons to use when it disappears to protect ourselves from the seasonal variations.

If technology advances do not keep up on the storage front, the growth of renewable technologies will be slow and we will not capitalize on the abundant resources at our disposal.

Emerging technologies that are growing the Energy industry

Since we can recognize the different ways in which technology is changing the energy sector, there are some emerging technologies that are already more influential in changing the way we harness and use energy. We have information technology shaking things up and the new methods of using energy already discussed above. Nevertheless, the following technologies are showing potential or already have an impact in a significant way:

1. Oil production without Greenhouse gases

Oil production has always been a process that impacts the environment in a major way. The conventional process involves the release of greenhouse gases that have a major effect on the climate. Finding a way to cleanse the process has been a top priority for many producers who are concerned with the environment and their image to an apprehensive public.

Now, oil can be produced using an oil sands extraction method that doesn’t use liquids at high temperatures, does not emit greenhouse gases, and produces minimal waste. This method has been pioneered and patented by a company called Petroteq. The technique has already been put into use for the mass production of oil products.

2. Blockchain

Blockchain is a transaction-monitoring platform being integrated into many industries today. The energy industry involves a lot of money and with the numerous transactions taking place, there can be issues with transparency and efficiency. For that reason, the oil and gas supply chain can do with a bit of streamlining to ensure that all transactions are conducted in an ethical way.

Although a lot has been documented about this technology, the energy industry will benefit from it in the following ways:

  • Transparency in all kinds of transactions involving energy assets
  • Documentation of all the transactions for auditing and future reference
  • Government supervision: The government can monitor all the transactions and determine whether everything has been done legally.

3. Solar “sandwich” panels

This new trend in solar panel technology is making it easier to harness the abundant solar energy. While production and installation of ordinary panels are laborious, this new approach is simplifying the process and bring with it a new level of flexibility that will shake up the industry.

With this technique, we can trap solar energy from any surface. All it requires us to do is spray an ink solution onto a surface or cover the surface with a newspaper-like material.

A couple of companies have decided to advance the technology, which is still in its infancy. But it promises to be the next frontier in solar energy.

4. Smart Meters

A smart meter is a unique kind of meter that measures an energy parameter and relays the data to a provider, often in real time. Smart meters have revolutionized the consumption of gas and electricity in the developed world. The key benefits include:

  • Accurate billing: Energy providers determine the amounts payable by customers more effectively without having to check in physically. As for the consumers, more accurate readings ensure that they pay for what they use rather than estimations which are mostly overstated.
  • Enables the customers to monitor their use and institute measures to curb spending.

5. Quick Lithium Extraction

Lithium is an element used in the production of batteries. It is considered valuable to the energy sector because batteries are now widely used in the storage of the renewable energy we produce. Batteries are also used more commonly to power the mobile gadgets we use in our day-to-day lives. Therefore, the demand for the element is at an all-time high.

The challenge with the current extraction method is that it takes too long to obtain the material from the mines. It takes as long as 24 months with the current technique to extract it and put it into use. The traditional extraction method is also very wasteful and expensive.

A company called International Battery Metals has discovered a new way to extract it in one day. They can extract it efficiently without leaving behind toxic chemicals. It also allows them to satisfy the growing demand cheaply.

Technological advances still have a big part to play in the economic growth of the energy sector. The use of technology in the industry is still in its infancy. However, we cannot underestimate its influence and forget that it is availing more energy to more consumers than was ever possible.

In the end, technological improvements are making the energy players more competitive, reducing the environmental damage occasioned by exploitation and use of energy, and making it cheap to supply the energy to the consumers. All these factors are fostering the growth of the industry and, by extension, driving overall economic growth.

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