The Making of a Megatrend: Episode 1

Seven Key Drivers Propelling the Alternative Energy Megatrend

To understand why alternative energy developments represent a modern socio-political, techno-economic, and ideological megatrend, it is important to examine the driving forces that propel them. For the sake of simplicity, I have boiled these forces down to 7 key drivers of the megatrend. These driving forces are not only the essence of the alternative energy megatrend, but they also constitute the alternative energy megatrend itself.

1. The insatiable demand for energy 

It comes as no surprise that the current and future uptake of renewables correlates with the fluctuating demand and supply of fossil fuels, and to an extent nuclear energy, making increasing energy demand a leading driver of the alternative energy megatrend. Although global energy demand was subdued during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is set to rebound this year to pre-pandemic levels. Electricity demand is heading for its fastest growth in more than 10 years. Humanity’s increasing demand for energy underscores the importance of energy security approaches, such as independence, diversification, and interdependence. To the extent that renewables can expand the horizon of possible and reliable – energy sources they will offer a hedge against price fluctuations, manipulations, and restrictions of supply, and therefore become important parts of the energy security equation.   

2. Environmental concerns

It’s not all about supply and demand. The alternative energy megatrend is also driven by growing aspirations to protect the environment and human habitat. Alternative energy developments have emerged as a tangible solution that enables state and non-state actors to address the most pressing environmental challenges, including climate change, ecosystem degradation and scarcity of essential resources. A broadening “green agenda” and increasing demands for a new eco-system which reconciles human existence and wellbeing with nature is accelerating support for renewable energy. Studies that point to the immediacy of man-made environmental threats, record-breaking heat and extensive wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, and the European Union’s new (and very ambitious) climate policy “Fit for 55” will only add to the momentum. In the U.S., under the Biden Administration, public and political pressure to halt climate change influences the development of policies that bolster renewable energy. Global environmental summits, although their practical outcomes may be limited, are steadily promoting worldwide policies to mitigate climate change risks.

3. The economic growth dictum

Economic security is a dominant consideration in human endeavors. It entails the pursuit of stable growth, economic diversity and independence, job creation, and resilience to volatility and economic shocks. The indispensability of energy for fueling economic growth highlights potential economic security considerations that are advancing the alternative energy megatrend, particularly given its capacity to alleviate economic security risks and contribute to general welfare. Alternative energy is seen as capable of contributing to current and future economic security by creating new options for economic diversification and acting as a springboard for the development of new industries. Alternative energy developments have the potential to lower energy prices, free up resources for investment elsewhere, create jobs, reduce fossil fuel dependency, and contribute to stable economic growth. Ultimately, the alternative energy megatrend’s projected outcomes allow economies to produce new competitive advantages, prompting policymakers to embrace the trend’s promised outcomes.

4. The global technological revolution

The new technological capabilities arising from the 4th Industrial Revolution are not only drivers, but also preconditions of the alternative energy megatrend. The advances in connectivity, intelligence, and flexible automation will propel the alternative energy megatrend by providing solutions which will make generation and distribution of energy from renewable sources technically feasible and commercially viable. Without this technological knowledge base, many of the inventions necessary for the commercialization and wide-scale use of alternatives — smart grids, energy storage, new materials, and physiochemical applications — would not only be impossible, but also inconceivable.

Unlocking the full potential of today’s alternative energy technologies largely rests on energy storage solutions and advancement in the digital grid. Future transformations are not strictly based on battery-storage development. Other storage technologies are on the cusp, such as storing hydrogen gas that can be burned in fuel cells. This system uses nanomaterials to create a partially flexible sponge that can trap hydrogen atoms in its pores. Another example is a sulfur-based flow battery in which ions flow across a membrane between a sulfur-containing anode and a cathode.  The 4th Industrial Revolution is also transforming the digital grid architecture. Technological advances in the energy grid such as visibility at the grid edge; integration of sensors and data analytics for distributed generation; smart contracts for energy management; flexible demand; and intelligent control systems will propel the alternative energy megatrend.

Alternative energy developments acquire momentum even when they merely advance technological understanding and lack economic justification. Adding alternative energy developments to advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, materials technology, and information technology bolsters the ability of technology to act as a catalyst for social change.

5. The quest for new military capabilities

Led by the United States, several countries are changing their attitudes about the military significance of alternative energy use making the integration of renewables into the 21st century defense sector another significant driver of the alternative energy megatrend. The U.S. defense department’s purchasing power, if increasingly directed toward developing and/or acquiring alternative energy technologies, could help propel the megatrend. The defense sector’s continuous search for new energy solutions entails the pursuit of operational advantages, cost savings, and efficiency improvements. It is motivated by strategic considerations, the need to free resources, and the need to alleviate the burden of protecting fossil fuel infrastructure and supply lines in operational theatres.

The unforeseen military capabilities that alternative energy might deliver could be far greater than a mere replacement of fossil fuels, and could offer the means to attain a new defense paradigm. Current unmanned platforms and automated intelligence-gathering devices suffer from restricted mission times due to energy sources of limited duration and power. New equipment is being developed to address the issues, like the experimental Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot or intelligent power manager systems like Protonex’s SPM-612 (Squad Power Manager), which weighs less than a pound and employs energy from many sources, including solar, fuel cells, and scavenged energy. The “super-soldiers of the future” will require a range of new capabilities in communication, networking, stamina, firepower, and range. Alternative energy technologies can: enhance the warfighting capabilities of combatants, improve command and control speed and precision, allow commanders to conduct operations with unprecedented speed and cohesion, and potentially offer new ways of delivering power to targeted areas of the battlefield. Modern military missions not only face asymmetric violence, unpredictability, frozen conflicts, and failed states but find themselves in the midst of the new Great Power Competition. These strategic defense considerations are further contributing to the imperative to integrate renewables development into the global security architecture.

Beyond direct defense benefits, the defense community is expected to serve as a source of technological advances, adding momentum to the spread of renewables. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) focuses on the most far-reaching scientific discoveries and innovations. With an annual budget of approximately US$3.5 billion, DARPA’s mission stretches across all security sectors. Alternative energy projects undertaken by the agency are fueling research on multiple energy-related fronts — algae-based jet fuel, nano-batteries, wave energy, solar and wind technology, fuel cells from microbes, and space-age technologies. These projects could provide breakthroughs that can then be widely applied beyond the defense community. In the early 20th century, for example, the combination of the internal combustion engine and the machine gun resulted in the invention of armored vehicles and aircraft that revolutionized warfare. 

6. New Means of Empowerment

Renewables also promise new powers for individuals, communities, states, and non-governmental entities, granting the ability to transform power balances and promote their cause. The trend promises state actors new levels of energy independence, geopolitical positioning, power-projection capabilities, and insurance against volatility and shocks. Alternative energy developments can also play a role in empowering civil society in the global policymaking process. Renewables enable society, particularly under the auspices of “green” priorities, to challenge states and influence domestic and foreign agendas. Renewables have particularly empowered individuals to participate in policy debates in the areas of environmental security and health, economic security, and, increasingly, energy security.

7. The ethical imperative

The alternative energy megatrend is provided with added momentum by increasingly powerful moral imperatives. Alternative energy embodies an inherent “goodness” and “moral superiority” by establishing a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature and providing an ethical response to climate change and sustainability challenges.  As such, history has witnessed an evolution in ethics associated with energy production and consumption — a moral position that is affecting behavior and social order.

However, viewed more closely, the moral values attached to alternative energy developments have inherent inconsistencies. This is especially true regarding the costs associated with the deployment of new technologies. One of the largest ethical issues is the impact alternative energy initiatives have on the poor. Given current market realities, adoption of renewables is highly dependent on financial resources — once again making prosperity the realm of the rich. The rapid development of biofuels, for example, presents its own ethical conundrums. Increasing the proportion of biofuels in the energy mix has resulted in deforestation and rising food prices as crops envisioned for food consumption have been diverted to biofuel production. Solar and wind farms present ethical issues related to land use.

Despite these, and other inconsistencies, as society increasingly ascribes ethical values to the political and economic sphere, the alternative energy technologies offer policy options that fall firmly in the moral high ground, or the “right side of history.”

In the end…

These 7 drivers are reinforced and channeled by the coalescing domestic and international regulatory frameworks. When combined, the drivers form the identity of the alternative energy megatrend. Perhaps most importantly, the drivers of the alternative energy megatrend are acting as a catalyst for significant techno-economic and sociopolitical changes that will disrupt individuals, businesses, governments, and societies in ways we can barely imagine today.