Energy landscapes will shape the new energy systems paradigm

Energy is bound up in everything we experience. When we speak about energy in the consumer market sense, we are speaking about energy released as electricity or to turn motors or as thermal energy. That temporary release of energy creates a discrete discernible commodity that can be managed, packaged, and sold. It is not, however, all of the energy that there is, and does not represent the most efficient possible movement or management of energy.

Particle physics reveals that at its most basic level, matter is energy. An atom is an energy landscape. Molecules, and larger structures made of molecules are more complex energy landscapes. The physical world around us, and which we are part of, is a vast, layered, interactive energy landscape. The segment of our experience we refer to as energy is only a narrow slice of the overall energy bound up in the landscape of our experience.

That’s the first critical insight: We are made of and surrounded by energy.

The next critical insight is that far more of this energy is available to us than we have conventionally made use of. That is partly to do with two biased ways of seeing that are rooted in our process of discovery:

  1. that combustion is an efficient way to unlock energy trapped in matter (fuel);

  2. that turning a turbine is the easiest way to make electricity happen (to generate electricity).

These mechanical strategies are grounded in our process of discovery, allowing us to harness energy and move it into industrial machines. They are lived experience, so it may seem unfair to call them biases. They are biases because they have the power to prevent us from seeing other possibilities clearly.

Combustion produces pollution, which costs money and lives, and conventional energy systems may be reaching the upper limit for efficient electricity production. Meanwhile, our quest to increase standards of living is accelerating, and for far more people, and the energy demands of our information systems are also rapidly expanding, so we have to look for something better.

Where we stand right now, in the history of humanity’s quest to harness and manipulate energy, is that we still ask biased questions about the efficiency of energy production—questions biased toward the strategies we have used for turning combustion into motion to mechanize energy flows, and to deliver them to consumers as commodities defined by fuel stock reasoning.

We then ask other biased questions, based on the idea that the easiest patch for those perceived gaps is to use certain chemicals or minerals to store energy in electric batteries. Again, this reasoning does hold up, given our experience so far. We have the knowledge and capability to do just that, and it does provide a remedy, in certain circumstances, and to an extent.

If, however, we limit ourselves to only these options for making and managing energy flows, we fall short of understanding the true transition from fuel-stock reasoning to energy-landscape reasoning.

  • Energy-landscape reasoning understands the mechanisms for accessing, harnessing, managing, and investing in energy are not limited to what we can build, own, or sell.

  • Energy shapes and informs our experience, even if we ignore it; energy-landscape reasoning aims to stop ignoring the most accessible generative instances of that untapped reality.

Emerging science now points to a new age of architecture and engineering starting from the molecular scale and integrating energy flows into the built environment in ways the old industrial grid could never achieve. Cities, transportation, manufacturing, policy, investment, and economics, will all be fundamentally altered by energy-landscape innovation. So will information technology, data processing, and the depth and precision of our understanding of Earth systems.

Everything in this image is energetic—a multilayered information-exchanging energy landscape. We can harness far more of what Nature provides, if we move away from fuel-stock marketing as our primary practice.

While we don’t yet have the hard data—because new materials, new fusions of biological and chemical sciences are still emerging, and the ensuing business practices have yet to be conceived and proven—we can say with confidence that the right approach to crafting, connecting, and managing energy landscapes will once again amplify our information and energy management capability far beyond the constraints of systems we have known so far.

A clean future is coming, and multiscale energy landscapes will weave new value and capability into everything we do. As we emerge from Earth Week 2021, with major new financial commitments, accelerated decarbonization timelines, and an international effort to build new energy systems infrastructure and components, the question is:

Will we focus far enough beyond the existing paradigm to achieve the cleanest possible economy as soon as possible, and open to everyone?