Science and technology have utterly transformed human life in the past few generations, and forecasts of the future used to be measured in decades. But big changes arrive faster and faster these days. So here we've shifted our forecast to the near-term, because we're right on the verge of some extraordinary stuff. These are the trends and events to watch out for in 2013. See them all here.
Natural gas has emerged as a cheap, abundant fuel source because of hydraulic fracturing, and energy companies are now racing to develop it. Gas isn't perfect. Its environmental reputation is controversial at best; emissions from methane that escapes during drilling give it a big carbon footprint. But natural gas releases 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal at the smokestack, so proponents have championed its use as a bridge to still-cleaner sources of power.
Recent trends seem to support that idea. Coal use is plummeting—it now generates just 42 percent of U.S. electricity—and carbon emissions from energy production have dropped to the lowest level in 20 years (the recession deserves credit for that too). Meanwhile, wind generation jumped 10 percent in 2012, and solar more than doubled.
But for gas to really be a bridge fuel, it has to lead to, not block, the destination at the other end. According to a new analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the glut of natural gas and its rock-bottom prices are actually keeping renewables from taking off—even though their costs have never been more competitive.
That could begin to change in 2013. As public concern over the environmental and health impacts of fracking mounts, multiple agencies may levy new regulations on drilling. If that occurs, gas prices would likely rise, increasing the appeal of renewables.
Wind and solar could see boosts of their own. Although the production tax credit for wind energy—an important subsidy due to expire in 2012—faces opposition from Congress, the governors of 28 states with strong wind development called for its extension. Also watch for the Department of the Interior to make good on promises to allow solar energy plants on giant swaths of federal lands in Colorado and elsewhere, and for commercial utility-scale solar projects in the Southwest to near completion.
If all that happens, renewable energy will reach a scale on which it can truly compete. Only then will we know if natural gas was a step in the transition, or if it turned out to be a bridge to nowhere.
Energy is wealth. An energy policy that punishes cheap energy sources and subsidizes impractical high cost energy sources is the cruelest tax on the poorest members of our society. The Obama Energy Policy is responsible for our current high unemployment and slow economic growth. It needs to be dumped if America is to thrive and prosper.
@ Peter_Grynch: Thank you for that very unscientific rant. It further illustrates the lack of ability for most Americans to see beyond their own generation and into the near and distant futures or to use logic or reasoning instead of often self-defeating, hypocritical ideology. You champion cheap energy now, but fail to realize that public funding of test bed projects for renewable energies ultimately lead to effective new technologies at a scale enabling cheaper $/kW than existing cheap, dirty energy.
I see the downfall of the coal industry as society's progress, just as the downfall of the horse and carriage industry ushered in a transportation revolution. Step outside of yourself and try to see the forest for the trees.....your grandchildren will thank you.
@derosanick82: Thank you for your ecofacist rant. Wind power and terrestrial solar power are both notoriously unreliable. Continuing to subsidize them is really counter-productive. Since we would have to install 4 times rated capacity just to average their rated capacity and continue using fossil fuels as backup even with massive storage capacity, wind is untenable and absolutely uneconomic.
Solar is even worse because of weather and the fact that it can only operate in daylight. Even the thermal solar systems that try to store heat energy have limited usefulness.
Depending on intermittent, unreliable, "renewable" power generation to run our cities just because environmentalists have blessed them as "green" is not a rational thing to do.
If you want to have clean energy to power the future of the human race derosanick82, you should be supporting and promoting hydro-power, nuclear power and solar power satellites built using extraterrestrial materials.
Maybe your grandchildren will thank you, that they are living in a country that is starved of energy and industrially completely uncompetetive and backwards, because their grandfathers took the wrong decision when it counted and bet on an unproven technology. We all know what it takes to make renewables work: Live like the Amish! If you want clean cheap reliable and proven power, with a minimal environmental footprint, go nuclear.