I’ve been reflecting on the idea that the current energy system is starting to be swept along by a technological revolution somewhat akin to the “revolution” over the last 30 years in computers and telecommunications that has brought personal computers, mobile phones and the internet. Read some of the literature of techno-optimists and it is very common to suggest that Moore’s Law – the doubling of processing power on computers every year – provides an analogue for the sort of change that will apply in renewable energy systems – if only the politicians and carbon vested interest do not get in the way. In support of this idea people commonly point to the rapidity with which renewable systems like solar and wind have developed so far. The main thing is that the political support should be there…
I 60% agree but have severe reservations with carrying the analogy too far. There are some real differences that make the two “revolutions” largely non-comparable:
(1) The digital revolution has brought us many new products that do things we couldn’t do before – computers, mobile phones, the internet. That makes it attractive to people and companies and has sped adoption. The energy revolution does not bring new final end products – the end products are electricity (and heat and motion) which we already had. What it brings are many new ways of generating electricity (and heating and moving things).
(2) To pay for the energy revolution people must pay once for the new technology that generates the energy source (mostly as electricity) and once for products that are adapted to this new energy source (eg a petrol or diesel car to an electric car) – and perhaps a third time for the back up or storage to cope with intermittency in the renewable power source.
(3) To supply electricity, heat and motion reliably and at demand will be incredibly expensive – there are good reasons to believe that current cost reductions in the energy generation arrangements for wind and solar will not be sustained when the fossil fuel back up (ie natural gas power stations ) that is the current back up have to be replaced by renewable energy back ups or energy storage infrastructures. In other words it will get more difficult over time when fossil fuel back up has to be closed down.
(4) Over the decades while the digital economy was being developed household, corporate and government debt started out much lower and has grown massively. At the start of the energy technology revolution the economy is maxed out on debt which is only sustainable with very low interest rates. Rising interest rates are not going to make it easy to fund the capital/equipment costs of a new technological revolution.
(5) Over the last few decades conventional oil production has peaked and depletion in coal and gas, as well as a variety of minerals that will be needed for another technological revolution are becoming more costly to extract because they are in depletion too, with lower ore quality being tapped. Depletion in the oil and natural gas sector are driving that sector into bankruptcy because the sector cannot recoup its rising costs from rising prices – a stagnant economy cannot charge rising energy prices without crashing the economy. Developing a new energy system takes energy – a renewables infrastructure is first of all dependent on fossil fuel based energy to build it and if the fossil fuel industry is in trouble at an early stage in the development of a renewable system that is going to be a serious problem.
All these things can be summarised as saying that the digital revolution occurred while the global economy still had expansion capacity. It had not yet reached the limits to economic growth – although for some time now the global economy has been in overshoot and running down resources and “natural capital” (I do not like the term, however I use it here as a shorthand).
The energy revolution has to be made in totally different and much more difficult times – while the global economy is in retreat. It will be difficult to bring a new energy sector into existence when the economy is stagnant and people will struggle to afford expensive innovation. Paradoxically in these circumstances it is likely to be many older technologies that will make sense again – perhaps in a reworked form. That is what makes the work of Kris de Decker written up in the Low Technology Magazine and its companion, the No Technology Magazine so important – rediscovering a multitude of solutions from history.
Below are links to two fantastic articles written by Kris de Decker in Low Technology Magazine – well researched, clear and easy to understand and full of relevant technical data.
What they show is that trying to build an electrical energy system mainly with wind and solar that would be able to meet the demand for electricity at all times as we have now is a futile endeavour. It would be way too expensive in money, resources and energy. We must get used to the idea of using electricity only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing (enough).
In practical terms that means that
“…. if the UK would accept electricity shortages for 65 days a year, it could be powered by a 100% renewable power grid (solar, wind, wave & tidal power) without the need for energy storage, a backup capacity of fossil fuel power plants, or a large overcapacity of power generators.”
I dare say a similar conclusion would be drawn for Ireland.
The second article develops in more detail the idea of running the economy on renewables when the energy is there and is an important complement to the first article.
Brian Davey will be having a discussion with Alan Simpson entitled “How do we survive tomorrow” at the University of Nottingham on October 12, 6-8 pm. More information.