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11 August 2009

The future of energy

Filed under: books, Energy, innovation, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:03 pm

On Saturday afternoon (15th August), I’ll be chairing a meeting in Central London on the topic, “The future of energy: Leadership and technological innovation”.

The speaker is James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting & Innovation, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. I’ve seen James speak several times over the years, and he’s always both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The talk will cover some of the same ground as the recent book “Energise – A future for energy innovation” which James co-authored with Joe Kaplinksy.
Energise

Some extracts from the back cover convey the flavour of the book:

  • The way to deal with global warming is to build a bigger, better energy supply, not to invite the state to meter your family’s every use of energy at home and in the car;
  • This book shows you… why there’s still time to fix global warming without downgrading your lifestyle;
  • Energise! sets out a programme for innovation in nuclear, carbon-based and renewable energy.  The programme is one in which governments and industry do what they are supposed to do: enable people to get on with their lives;
  • Energise is a challenge to climate zealots, climate sceptics, and government moralisers alike;
  • This is a refreshing and a required read for anybody … bored with the idea of merely surviving, and confident that human beings can still make a much better world.

I’m expecting a lively debate!  The future of energy is a critically important topic, for all kinds of reason.

If you think you might like to attend, there are more details on the event blog.

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7 Comments »

  1. Ross Anderson has some interesting things to say on the introduction of smart meters, particularly on the temptation for the government to use them as instruments of social control, and for the utility companies to use them for differential pricing (and probably not for the consumer’s benefit!) He waxed lyrical on the topic at the UKUUG summer conference last Saturday, and the presentation was recorded but I don’t think it’s on line yet.

    Comment by Craig H — 12 August 2009 @ 2:36 pm

  2. Pity I cannot attend, it’s always more interesting to listen to someone with an opposing point of view. I haven’t read the book, but, at the risk of taking them out of context, I’ll state my disagreement with two points made by Woudhuysen.

    1) On the back cover of the book Woudhuysen states: “The way to deal with global warming is to build a bigger, better energy supply…”

    Well, that’s as sensible as a mobile phone manufacturer saying “The way to increase talk and standby time is to develop higher capacity batteries.” Clearly phone manufacturers need to look at both battery technology and the electrical efficiency of the phone. Similarly, to deal with global warming, we need to develop better energy supplies *and* to become more efficient in the usage of energy. We also need to look at the technologies of energy transmission and storage.

    Of course Britain has its own energy supply problem: the combination of (i) North Sea oil and gas running out and (ii) large numbers of nuclear and coal fired power stations coming to the ends of their useful lives means that in 5 to 10 years Britain is likely to face severe energy shortages. But this is orthogonal to the global warming problem.

    2) At http://extrobritannia.blogspot.com/2009/07/future-of-energy.html Woudhuysen states:
    “When Western elites say, as a response to concerns about climate change, that individual consumers must change their lifestyles and use less energy, they are really abdicating their own responsibility to develop a new, cheap, clean and reliable energy supply.”

    Well, the thought that either (i) new technology won’t change our lifestyles, or that (ii) when developing technology we should somehow do it in a way that tries to preserve our current lifestyles is just plain wrong. Here’s why:

    i) Technology has always had a profound effect on our lifestyles, from the invention of stone tools and agriculture, to the industrial revolution, to the invention of the automobile and more recently the invention of the mobile phone and the internet. New energy technologies will effect our lifestyles in unpredictable and perhaps profound ways. (Who could have predicted that the invention of the automobile would have lead to suburbia?)

    ii) The idea that our current lifestyles are somehow “optimal” and should be preserved is just odd. Our current lifestyles are just a product where we happen to be now in history. They will continue to evolve. Woudhuysen also implies that using less energy means detrimental changes to our lifestyles. There are plenty of efficiency measures that actually improve our lifestyles, to name but a few:

    a) GPS devices in cars and especially our transport infrastructure
    b) Working from home one or two days a week. This allow significant lifestyle improvements, especially to people with children. It also improves things for those who don’t work at home, since the trains and roads are less crowded.
    c) Well insulated homes with air re-circulation. More efficient and nicer to live in.

    There are also future technologies, for example cars that self-drive in convoys on motorways. More efficient, faster, no traffic jams and fewer accidents. The experience of motorways would be profoundly different. A few would complain, but I expect most people would love to avoid the tedium of driving on the motorway.

    So yes, let’s develop new sources of energy, but let’s not make it our exclusive focus.

    Actually, I’m not too worried that we won’t invest in the technologies of energy efficiency, energy transmission and storage and the technologies that enable or cause lifestyle changes – these technologies are all more inherently interesting than the technologies of energy production.

    By the way, if you are interested in a meaty, by-the-numbers look at the physics and practicalities of energy, then I recommend: “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” by David J.C. MacKay, see:

    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/

    and especially the chapter: “Five energy plans for Britain” –
    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c27/page_203.shtml

    Comment by Martin Budden — 14 August 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  3. Hi Martin,

    I’m sorry you can’t join the meeting – you make some interesting points.

    …that’s as sensible as a mobile phone manufacturer saying “The way to increase talk and standby time is to develop higher capacity batteries.” Clearly phone manufacturers need to look at both battery technology and the electrical efficiency of the phone…

    Hmm, that’s an analogy that’s close to my heart. Absolutely, for mobile phones, steps to improve the phone’s electrical efficiency (via enhancements in both hardware and software) can make a big difference to battery life.

    But if/when whole new energy technologies become sufficiently mature, there could be huge leaps forward in the amount of time a phone can go without plugging in an electrical recharger. Examples (for phones) are improved solar panels, converting kinetic energy of motion (of the phone and/or the user of the phone), and various kinds of wireless charging.

    Likewise for the larger energy questions…

    Similarly, to deal with global warming, we need to develop better energy supplies *and* to become more efficient in the usage of energy.

    But it’s also possible in principle that, for example, next generation solar energy collectors could (1) collect more energy from the sun than is needed for all the Earth’s needs, AND (2) avoid generating greenhouse gases. In that case, a special emphasis on efficiency would lose its importance.

    the thought that either (i) new technology won’t change our lifestyles, or that (ii) when developing technology we should somehow do it in a way that tries to preserve our current lifestyles is just plain wrong.

    I’m sure James Woudhuysen realises that new technologies do change lifestyles. The question, instead, is whether, to fend off global warming, we should emphasise (a.) changing our lifestyles or (b.) improving energy production.

    I’ve only read about the first 50% of the book, but it makes the case that there’s more mileage in option (b.) than is commonly assumed.

    Comment by David Wood — 14 August 2009 @ 11:09 pm

  4. I live just round the corner from De Montfort and spent ages researching an article about Nokia’s research into wireless charging via the leftover energy in our atmosphere. If I’d known there was an expert on renewable energy so close I’d have tried to arrange an interview. David, I’d have to say that both are equally important to building a better future, though the second one is most important in the long run. Building better gadgets that use less energy or adjusting your lifestyle is all well and good, but no matter how much you budget and cut down you will run out of a single finite source eventually.

    Comment by Furie — 15 August 2009 @ 12:24 am

    • Hi Furie,

      …researching an article about Nokia’s research into wireless charging via the leftover energy in our atmosphere

      Sounds fascinating! Did this get published? Could you post a URL (or email me a PDF – my details are in the About This Blog page)?

      Comment by David Wood — 15 August 2009 @ 9:09 am

  5. I really like Martin’s comments, and agree on all points. Here’s my story on lifestyle:

    The Finnish government supports “young” people in buying their first apartment. Young is defined as less than 40. Two years ago I was approaching 40 and had been renting in central Helsinki for the 20 years of my adult life. I needed to decide what to buy and where. The district of Lauttasaari where me and my son had been living for 10 years proved far too expensive for me, so I decided to make a full lifestyle turn and buy a tiny estate instead.

    Now I live 32 km (45 min-1hr) from my work in Espoo, and only go to the office once or twice a week. On workdays, I wake up around 8 am, have my morning coffee in the garden with a happy, non-leashed dog enjoying her morning with me. Around 8.45 I go to the computer and start working. Usually every day I have a conference call where I don’t need to participate too much. During these calls I button my ear, mute the line, and go to the greenhouse or fields to plock weeds, water the plants and so on. This doesn’t interfere with the conference call at all. I stop working around 4 pm, go food shopping and prepare the dinner. Then exercise, shower, and return to the computer in the evening for a couple of hours.

    In winter when the daylight is scarce (we don’t have street lights here), I go for a run with the dog during lunch time. I’m also working more during the dark season compared to summer time.

    My employer is encouraging remote work by redesigning our open air offices so that we don’t have permanent desks any more. We are also given free company routers and any technical gadget we need in order to work from home. This saves the company money, but also enhances the employees lifestyle and reduces environmental burden.

    Not having to drive to work saves me 1,5-2 hours every day. I use 8-10 hours for both sleep and work. I am enjoying this new lifestyle immensely and cannot stop praising the countryside.

    Now, if the government and my employer didn’t “force” me to change my lifestyle, I would still be living in a too small and expensive rented apartment in the city center, and wake up early every morning only to spend time to commute.

    My point is, as Martin writes, our current oil-based “fly to Thailand once a year” lifestyle is very young and by no means the ideal status quo that is worth preserving.

    The city of Helsinki is heating outdoor swimming pools in winter and building in-door skiing centers for summer. What’s the point? Why would this arrogancy be the right lifestyle?

    I would also support individual power meters for each plug (not just households). Working for Nokia I know that the company takes grat concern in the use of electricity for charging phones. Nokia has many initiatives ongoing for reducing the energy consumption of their phones. Being so “brainwashed”, I had thought that charging a phone would consume a lot of energy. I happened to be blogging about some new solar-powered mobile phones, and did a quick calculation on how much electricity we use for charging our phones, it’s worth 8,8 eurocents per year per phone (blog entry here http://blog.petras.mobi/2009/07/15/sharp-phones.aspx) (to be clear: I’m in no way impliying that we should leave chargers plugged to the wall, just saying that it’s much less than I had thought)

    Having constant arguments in the family on what consumes energy (in my family the men folk think it’s the kitchen appliances, and I think it’s the entertainment electronics), an individual meter for each plug would show the real consumption. End of dispute inside families.

    I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read other books on environment and global warming. There’s no question about the fact that we have messed things up so badly here that we no longer have a choice to do either-or. We have to do both: build better (i.e. more sustainable) energy sources and change our lifestyle. Both in developing and developed world. No question.

    It’s not only about CO2 emissions and the climate. A lifestyle built on continuously increasing material consumption is eating away our limited supply of virgin materials, clean water, resulting erosion, desertification etc.

    Also, cannot help myself to mention this: any innovation on nuclear energy that is not solving the storage problem is a useless innovation.

    A sunny Saturday morning, 10 o’clock. I think I will take my coffee to the garden now and go fetch the newspaper. Cheerio 🙂

    Comment by Petra S — 15 August 2009 @ 8:01 am

    • Hi Petra,

      Here’s my story on lifestyle…

      Many thanks for taking the time to paint this picture. It’s inspiring! It seems not only more energy efficient, but a much more pleasant and enjoyable lifestyle.

      There’s no question about the fact that we have messed things up so badly here that we no longer have a choice to do either-or. We have to do both: build better (i.e. more sustainable) energy sources and change our lifestyle

      Yes, things are badly messed up; that can’t be denied. Changing lifestyle, by itself, is very unlikely to be sufficient to address our growing energy issues. That’s why active research and development into new energy creation / storage / transmission is vital. That’s what I’m looking forward to hearing about later today.

      Enjoy your coffee!

      Comment by David Wood — 15 August 2009 @ 9:31 am


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