Why the world needs data as much as gas and renewables


Alongside a wealth of new opportunities, the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a new chapter in human history enabled by technology – will be accompanied by challenges, ranging from a growing global population to the impact of climate change.

As the drive to cut carbon emissions accelerates, three fuels will power the planet’s future: renewables, natural gas, and – perhaps most surprisingly – data. Each will be of crucial importance in tomorrow’s energy landscape.

So says Dr. Michio Kaku, a renowned futurist and professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, who outlined his vision for the energy landscape of tomorrow at the Gastech 2019 event in Houston, Texas.

Winners and losers

Just a short time ago, fossil fuels were seen as the best route to meeting our growing power needs. But as climate change draws energy producers and consumers toward cleaner sources, renewable energy’s star is rising.

In the past two decades, one terawatt of wind and solar capacity has been deployed. And the influence of renewables is growing rapidly as prices fall.

Yet these clean energy generators are not a stand-alone solution, at least not for the foreseeable future. They will need support from other power sources to meet future energy demand.

One such power source is natural gas. It is projected to meet a third of the increase in energy demand between now and 2040. And the gas, which is predominantly methane, will be especially important in emerging markets, according to Dr. Kaku.

“Burning methane gas produces 50% less carbon dioxide than coal, and 30% less than oil,” he told the audience at Gastech. “If you are in an emerging economy beginning to enter the global market, these numbers will speak to you.

“In any revolution there are winners and losers. By the best projection we can make, natural gas will be the winner.”

A contact lens could hold the power of the internet.
A contact lens could hold the power of the internet.

Data revolution

Alongside these physical sources of energy, Dr. Kaku believes, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be driven by data.

As he said at Gastech: “It is physics at the atomic level. We're talking about artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology. These will be the generators of wealth. Every industry, including the energy industry will be turned upside down.”

Data processing power has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Today, a single smartphone has more computing power than the combined space programs of NASA and the USSR back in the 1960s. Algorithms and machine learning can process vast amounts of information exponentially faster and more efficiently than humans, and identify patterns.

Sensors and robots are making the energy industry smarter
Sensors and robots are making the energy industry smarter

Dr. Kaku expects this acceleration in computing power to continue.

For example, miniaturized technology coupled with ever faster and more powerful computers would be able to harness the power of the internet inside a contact lens. Just one blink and you will be online, with a world of information at your disposal.

It’s this power that will ensure data’s role as a fuel of the future.“In the past, the revolutions of steam, electricity, and transistors were driven by fossil fuels,” Dr. Kaku concluded at Gastech. “The future will be a combination of data, fossil fuels and renewable technology. In other words, data will be one of the great drivers of growth and wealth generation into the future.”

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