Ask yourself a question for a moment: How many electrical cords do you use on a daily basis? You charge your cell phone, power your refrigerator, toaster, microwave, television, computer, etc. The infrastructure for electricity delivery in the United States is truly impressive considering how many devices we support on a daily basis. However, as the modern way of life continues to be ever more “on-the-go”, point sources of electrical supply may not be sufficient for consumers that crave longer battery life and less charging.
For true portability and mobility, we all want electronic devices that require little to no time plugged in. Imagine a world where you can walk into a room, and your cell phone or computer is powered without any cords, or any effort on your part. Imagine going on a week long hike and never having to charge your mp3 player in the middle of the woods. Imagine being able to capture energy using the most mundane of sources: a piece of paper or a t-shirt. Everything you are imagining is achievable by today’s technology. Lest this post sound too much like a sales pitch though, suffice it to say that these ideas pose an interesting question regarding our future energy policies and needs.
In the past decade, scientists have developed means for wireless power transmission over several meters, carbon nanotubes spread into paper and cloth that serve as wearable batteries, curtains that shade a room and capture energy from the sun using photovoltaic cells, biomechanical energy harvesters that capture energy from human movement, and the list goes on. While some of these advances are purely novelties at this point in time, it is certain that the future will trend more and more towards mobility and longevity of electrical devices. These inventions represent an innovation in thinking, to the end that one need not bring the device to the wall outlet, but rather bring the wall outlet to the device (in a manner of speaking).
For now, the utility companies still supply the power to the wireless transmitter, and the carbon nanotube paper battery requires a bath in electrochemicals (manufactured no doubt using utility companies). But if we go down the rabbit hole of speculation: with the advent of more and more technologies each year, if our next generation cell phones are charging themselves from a battery t-shirt, or leeching power from a nearby transmitter, how will the law keep up?
Some homesteads are already generating their own power and selling it back to the grid. What if that same capability were available on a per capita basis? If every person is both using from and supplying energy to “the grid” (if such a thing could be engineered), how can we keep the system fair? If power supply is not consolidated in utility companies, but rather, distributed among the population, will we be able to construct policies to control price, reliability, and equal use? Though none of these products are commercially available, let alone viable, it is also uncertain whether our governmental system and the representatives in control of that system are equipped to handle the complexities involved in such a scheme. Furthermore, how would the balance of energy concerns (National Security, Environment, and Economics) change? It may a long way off, but as we take energy and power supply back to a home/residence level, and even to a personal level, we find that there is a mix of promise in the potential applications, and uncertainty as to its feasibility and sustainability.