As U.S. energy independence looms on the horizon, Americans need to start rethinking and transitioning our own energy usage.
Big changes are afoot for U.S. energy. And when energy changes, we all change with it.
American manufacturing, transportation, and technological infrastructures are all deeply affected by, and entangled with, how smartly we produce and consume energy.
According to the International Energy Association, we’re entering an energy renaissance: Its 2012 World Energy Report concludes that the United States will become self-sustaining, in terms of net energy produced, by 2035. Part of that will mean an emergence of new career opportunities for people in the energy sector.
When we try to imagine what U.S. energy may look like in 2035, Jim Carroll, a futurist and energy expert, points to a few clues from very real energy trends emerging right now, changes which include new ways of transporting goods around the country, and new ways in which we think about energy infrastructure and workforces.
Whether we’re talking about renewable or natural energy, efficiency of use is approaching faster because of the acceleration of science, says Carroll, whose many books on innovation include “The Future Belongs to Those Who Are Fast.”
“Scientific knowledge happens and emerges faster than ever before because all of these scientists are plugged together,” he says. “Which means the new scientific discoveries in all these fields are faster, which again leads to higher levels of production in renewables, natural gas and oils.”
On the Road
The American long haul trucking industry has been dependent on traditional and diesel gasoline for decades. But not for much longer, according to Carroll.
“Energy companies are working to retrofit long-distance trucks for natural gas,” Carroll says. But that might be just an interim step toward a brand new paradigm for this industry. Carroll says that technologists are already asking questions like: “How do we use robotics, radar and GPS to link together seven or 10 trucks in a unit that can self drive down the road in a way that is energy efficient?”
The future of long-distance trucking might look more like these “road trains,” as Carroll calls them. These are autonomous vehicles that can navigate long distances without direct operation, with a team of skilled technicians operating them from afar.
A change like this requires us to think about reskilling the American workforce. Truck-driving jobs could potentially disappear, but the need for skilled technicians is growing considerably.
These emerging jobs will be in the management of what Jim Carroll calls “highly sophisticated highway control infrastructure systems,” which will arise from the need to redesign highways for smarter fueled vehicles with better efficiency.
And with smarter infrastructure for highways, there will be greater opportunities for innovating how personal cars are fueled. Many analysts have decried that the electric car is dead, but perhaps it just needs to be rethought. According to Carroll, the renewable battery model, which could take up to eight hours to charge, is outdated.
“Instead, let’s build a battery station that you drive your car into,” Carroll says. “A hydraulic arm reaches in and opens the underneath of your car, takes your battery and places in a brand new fresh one. Thirty seconds and you’re completely refueled and ready to go.”
Reshaping American Infrastructure
The same development is already occurring in many American industries: Think about how manufacturing jobs have shifted from assembly lines to technologically advanced robotics. Or how advanced oil drilling methodologies—hydraulic fracturing or horizontal drilling—have increased domestic oil production due to the efficiency of the processes. These process shifts require rethinking whole infrastructures, and with that, a need for a workforce with new skills.
These are major shifts, but small changes in energy consumption can also showcase how Americans are rethinking their energy consumption. Carroll mentions the Nest Learning Thermostat—a smart thermostat that adjusts the temperature in your house depending on whether you’re home, the time of day, and the outside weather. 
A smart thermostat would just be part of the future of smart and energy-efficient homes, where frozen smoke—an expensive but very efficient form of matter—could be used in home insulation. Or, in a concept by the New York architects Cook + Fox, the walls of the home may be biomorphic—practically lizard-like—and able to better absorb sunlight and retain energy depending on the weather.
But, again, the future of energy depends as much on such refinements as bigger innovations that are already being conceived. Some analysts predict that homes will be equipped with hydrogen fuel cells that will create low-emission electricity via a chemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen.
While there are many different views on when the United States may achieve energy independence, the prevailing opinion is that it will happen—and soon. But independence depends not only from producing more and consuming less energy: The next round of American energy innovation is also linked to scientific and technological advances as well as perhaps the most important feature—a highly skilled workforce.