Imagine waking up tomorrow in a world that doesn’t depend on oil.

That might seem far-fetched, but as engineers and scientists come up with new ways to harness renewable energy, those new sources of energy may soon shape the way our societies function and how we live our daily lives.

“We’re going to stop depending on oil long before we run out of it, so we really need to exercise our imaginations about what other futures are possible,” explains University of Alberta associate professor Sheena Wilson, who heads the Future Energy Systems energy humanities theme.

“Right now we live in sprawling urban communities with long commutes—we drive everywhere. If we don’t have access to such powerful energy sources, and our lives aren’t organized around auto-mobility, the shape of our cities looks very different. We need to think about communities we’re shaping through the energy systems we’re designing.”

Decentralization of energy through the development of wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal could mean that communities no longer need to be centralized. Societal power structures defined by those who presently control energy and wealth could also fundamentally change.

If someone living in a remote location unconnected from the grid could have the same reliable energy as someone living in an urban centre, would people need to live together in cities at all? Possibly, but maybe for entirely different reasons.

“Our communities might need to be organized in entirely new ways—around social and environmental sustainability, instead of around the easy flow of traffic and consumer goods,” said Wilson.

“We can ask ourselves all sorts of questions about why we live the way we live—and if changing the way we access energy will change everything,” she added.

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