New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is currently at an energy crossroads. We have two possible futures, which will be determined by the social and political choices we make today. As a nation we can go down the business-as-usual, fossil fuel route, or we can work towards a future based on clean energy and technologies. Professor Ralph Sims explores what our daily lives may look like under two very different scenarios

What follows is a peek into two possible New Zealands, each at the extreme end of what our future may look like. New Zealand in 40 years time might end up being somewhere between these two scenarios leaving the question: what sort of world do we want future generations to inherit?

If we are to successfully transition to a sustainable clean energy future, then significant investment in appropriate research and development needs to be made today. In 40 years time will we wonder why drastic steps to combat climate change weren't taken earlier?

Bleak House

We live in a world where record-high temperatures are a common occurrence and power costs are extremely expensive as fossil fuels become depleted or harder to extract. There is increased competition for water because the upstream water from most rivers is diverted to increase irrigation for farming during New Zealand's much drier summers.

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The hot, dry conditions affect food production as well as the power output from gas and coal-fired power stations since the water used for cooling the plants is now several degrees warmer. As a result of basic thermodynamics, thermal power plants now run at considerably lower efficiencies and have to be shut down during periods of high temperatures. Increased energy demands for air-conditioning cooling in buildings have led to higher demands, power price spikes and further environmental damage.

Traffic congestion in many urban centres now approaches gridlock at peak times and flooding has become increasingly common as rivers flowing through highly populated areas routinely break their levees. Ratepayers face hefty rate increases as ever-higher stop-banks are needed to keep the water at bay.

Because of New Zealand's failure to invest more than 0.2 per cent of GDP in research and development in the past, other countries - especially China and India - now control the operation of carbon dioxide capture and storage systems and the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and fuel cells.

As carbon prices continue to soar and uranium, oil and liquefied natural gas become increasingly scarce, the country's economy is crippled by the investment now needed to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy sources that were talked about earlier this century but never fully developed.

This process is further hampered because government funds need to be diverted to pay for critical climate adaption measures. These include renewing building foundations that are collapsing due to the underlying clay sub-soil drying out in the hot summer months and further height increases and strengthening needed to coastal levees as sea levels continue to rise.

New Zealanders no longer enjoy the easy-going culture they used to as extreme weather events regularly impact on their daily lives and livelihoods.

Great Expectations

For the past 40 years, Council District Plans across New Zealand have required that all new buildings have energy saving and clean energy technologies installed, as well as encouraging simple conversions of existing buildings.

There have been major investments in public transport infrastructure, including an electric bus and rail system in all cities and an automatic super-conductor 'high-railway network' that combines driverless, electric, road and rail vehicles. Commuter road vehicles have 'artificial photosynthesis' coatings integrated into their paintwork, and when they reach the super-conductor high-railways, the system takes full control of the vehicle's movement and energy supply.

Large traditional hydropower plants remain in operation - but only to provide base load stability, resulting in a fully decarbonised, reliable and cost-effective electricity supply system.

The perceived problems constraining the target of 100 per cent renewable electricity caused by the variability of wind and solar power have been easily and economically overcome by accurate weather forecasting, the integration of demand-side management controls, and the construction of back-up bioenergy combined heat and power plants.

These plants also produce the co-product 'biochar', which generates revenue through valuable carbon credits but also improves soil quality. As a result, crop and pasture yields are higher, irrigation demands are less, and carbon is removed from the atmosphere.

These biomass conversion technologies, combined with carbon capture and storage developments, mean that negative global carbon emissions can actually be achieved within the next decade. This goal is essential if the planet is to keep below the maximum 2oC warming as agreed by all countries in 2009.

Many urban areas in New Zealand have become 'biophilic' with plants and wildlife closely integrated with the buildings and transport infrastructure and fresh vegetables are even being grown in vertical greenhouses. Most buildings have solar power coupled with energy storage systems that are integrated with efficient electric-powered, commuter transport 'pods' to give flexible mobility for all.

All unused organic material is collected for use in bio-refinery plants that produce a range of bio-products, including liquid biofuels and the 2000 or more chemicals that used to be produced from crude oil. Local employment opportunities close to residential areas are therefore common place.

All homes and buildings have 'smart meters' installed that enable the occupiers to save money by avoiding peak power charges and to earn revenue by selling excess power generated by efficient solar panels, micro-turbines and wind turbines fixed along the roof ridge back to the grid. Electric vehicles have become part of the domestic energy system and used as energy storage devices when needed at peak times.

Ground source heat pumps provide the little heat energy needed by modern house designs, but are more often applied to provide cooling services in the hot summers.

With all these smart appliances running each house becomes its own micro-generator. Neighbourhoods effectively have their own virtual power station because a central internet-based system controls the varying supply/load balance from all the buildings at any given time.

Communities also own fleets of vehicles available for residents to hire on those rare occasions when high-speed rail services or their usual commuter vehicles are unsuitable, for example taking longer journeys to wilderness areas with the family.

What's our future?

In reality, New Zealand in 40 years time might end up being somewhere between these two scenarios. But the question remains: what sort of world do we want future generations to inherit?

If we are to successfully transition to a sustainable clean energy future, then significant investment in appropriate research and development needs to be made today. In 40 years time will we wonder why drastic steps to combat climate change weren't taken earlier? That is the current generation's decision to make.

Ralph Sims is Professor of Sustainable Energy with Massey University's School of Engineering and Advanced Technology. He is also a member of the Science Technology Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility and a long-time contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.