13 November 2019

The astonishing backstory to fracking, Russia, and the dangers of capitalism out of control

Blowout is truly a standout. It brilliantly illuminates powerful forces behind ongoing changes in the oil and gas industry. As the book makes clear, we underestimate these forces at our peril. Accordingly, Blowout deserves a wide readership.

Rachel Maddow, the author of Blowout, doubles as the narrator of the book’s audio version. She also hosts a nightly public affairs show on MSNBC. She reads her own words with great panache. It’s as if the listener could see the knowing winks. Indeed, whilst listening to Blowout, I was prompted to laugh on loud on occasion – before feeling pangs of guilt for having taken pleasure at various all-too-human episodes of duplicity, hubris, and downfall. This isn’t really a laughing matter, though the humour helps our sanity. The future may depend on how well we take to heart the lessons covered in Blowout.

Despite the sharp critical commentary, the book also offers a lot of sympathy. Although the oil and gas industry is portrayed – as in the subtitle of the book – as “the most destructive industry on earth” – and as a strong cause of “corrupted democracy” and “rogue states” – the narrative also shows key actors of this industry in, for a while, a positive light. These individuals see themselves as heroic defenders of important ideals, including energy independence and entrepreneurial verve. Blowout shows that there’s considerable merit in this positive self-assessment. However, very importantly, it’s by no means the whole story.

Blowout interweaves a number of absorbing, captivating tales about larger-than-life individuals, decades-long technological innovation, some of the world’s most successful companies, and clashes of realpolitik. The structure is similar to a pattern often found in novels. At first it’s not clear how the different narrative strands will relate to each other. The connections become clear in stages – vividly clear.

Together, these accounts provide the backstory for various items that frequently appear in the news:

  • The transformation of the oil and gas industry by the technology of fracking (fracturing)
  • Oil executives being seemingly unconcerned about interacting with repulsive autocratic politicians
  • Russian political leaders taking steps to destabilise democracy in the US and in the EU
  • The long relationship between Vladimir Putin and former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
  • The activities of people whose names have featured in the Mueller investigation – including Paul Manafort and Dmytro Firtash
  • The floods of aggressive denial against the findings of scientists that activities of the oil and gas industry risk humongous environmental damage.

Blowout deserves a five-star rating for several different reasons. The discussion of the history of fracking, by itself, should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the general principles of technological disruption. The development of fracking conforms to the common pattern of a disruption lingering through a long, slow, disappointing phase, before accelerating to have a bigger impact than even the cheerleaders of the technology previously expected. It also produces a strong example of how an industry cannot be trusted to self-regulate. The industry will have too strong a motivation to downplay the “unexpected side effects” of the new technology. It’s chilling how oil and gas industry experts sought to silence any suggestion that fracking could be the cause of increased earthquakes. It’s also chilling how people who should have know better rushed to adopt various daft pseudo-scientific explanations for this increase.

The book’s account of oil-induced corruption in Equatorial Guinea is also highly relevant (not to mention gut-wrenching). The bigger picture, as Blowout ably explains, is addressed by the concept of “the paradox of plenty”. Of even greater interest is the application of this same theory to developments within Russia.

Alongside tales of epic human foolishness (including the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the bizarre experience of Shell’s experimental drilling in the Artic), the book offers some genuine inspiration. One example is the growing democratic push-back in the state of Oklahoma, against the previous dominance in that state of the oil and gas industry. Another example is the way in which by no means every country with a “plenty” of oil falls victim to the “paradox” of poorer overall social wellbeing.

In the end, Blowout emphasises, criticising the behaviour of the oil and gas industry makes as little sense as criticising a lion for having the temerity to hunt and eat prey. The solution cannot be merely to appeal to the good conscience of the executives in that industry. Instead, it’s up to governments to set the frameworks within which that industry operates.

In turn, it makes strong internal sense for executives in that industry to seek to undermine any such regulatory framework. We should not be surprised at the inventiveness of that industry and its supporters in finding fault with regulations, in obscuring the extent to which that industry benefits from long-standing subsidies and kickbacks, and in undermining effective international democratic collaboration (such as in the EU). Instead, we need clear-minded political leadership who can outflank the industry, so that we gain its remarkable benefits but avoid its equally remarkable downsides. And what will help political leaders to gain a clearer mind is if the analysis in Blowout becomes better known. Much better known.

PS Some of the same analysis is also covered in this recent video in the series about the Technoprogressive Roadmap:


16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.

Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

1 April 2012

Discovering and nourishing an inner ‘Why’

Filed under: books, challenge, Energy, films, leadership, marketing, motivation, passion, psychology — David Wood @ 1:21 am

Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?

In the 2012 year of London Olympics, the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” is poised to return to cinemas in the UK, digitally remastered. As reported by BBC News,

The film tells the true story of two runners who compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics despite religious obstacles.

It will be shown at more than 100 cinemas around the country from 13 July as part of the London 2012 Festival.

Starring Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, the film won four Oscars, including best picture, screenplay and music for Vangelis’ acclaimed score.

Although the film is 31 years old, producer Lord Puttnam believes the message is still relevant.  “Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief…” he said.

This is a film about accomplishment against great odds. More than that, it’s a film about motivation that can enable great accomplishment. The film features athletics, but the message applies much more widely – in both business life and personal life.

I vividly remember watching the film in its opening night in Cambridge in 1981, and being so captivated by it that I returned to the cinema the following evening to watch it again. One part that has wedged deep in my mind is the question I’ve placed at the top of this article, which comes from a sermon preached by Eric Liddell, one of the athletes featured in the movie:

Running in a race… is hard. It requires concentration of will. Energy of soul… Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.

Liddell’s own answer involved his religious faith, including following the principle that forbade playing sport on Sundays. Viewers can take inspiration from the film, without necessarily sharing Liddell’s particular religious views. The general point is this: Lasting personal strength arises from inner conviction.

Anyone watching the film is implicitly challenged: do we have our own inner basis for lasting personal strength? Do we have a ‘Why’ that gives us the power to pick ourselves up and continue to shine, in case we stumble in the course of our own major projects? Indeed, do we have a ‘Why’ that inspires not only ourselves, but others too, so that they wish to work with us or share our journey through life?

In similar vein, the renowned writer about personal effectiveness, Stephen Covey, urges us (in his celebrated book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) to Begin with the end in mind and to Put first things first:

Are you–right now–who you want to be, what you dreamed you’d be, doing what you always wanted to do? Be honest. Sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty–successes that have come at the expense of things that were far more valuable to them. If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster…

To live a more balanced existence, you have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is okay. There’s no need to over-extend yourself. All it takes is realizing that it’s all right to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities…

I was recently reminded of both Chariots of Fire and Stephen Covey when following up an assignment given to me by a personal coach. The assignment was to view the TED video “How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek:

This talk features high on the page of the TED talks rated by viewers as the most inspiring. Watch the video and this high placement won’t be a surprise to you. I liked the video so much that I downloaded the audio book the talk is based on: “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”. I’ve been listening to it while walking to/from work over the last few days. It’s been both profound and challenging.

Sinek’s central message is this:

People don’t buy ‘What’ you do, they buy ‘Why’ you do it.

To back up this message, Sinek tells a host of fascinating tales. He offers lots of contrasts, between individuals (or companies) that had a clear, inspiring sense of purpose (their ‘Why’), and those that instead became bogged down in the ‘What’ or the ‘How’ of their work. The former generated loyalty and passion – not so the latter. Examples of the former include Southwest Airlines, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, and Apple. He also gives examples of companies that started off with a clear sense of purpose, but then lost it, for example due to changes in leadership, when an operational leader took over the reins from an initial inspirational leader.

Sinek repeatedly contrasts “inspiration” with “manipulation”. Manipulation includes both carrots and sticks. Both inspiration and manipulation can lead to people doing what you want. But only the former can be sustained.

One vivid example covered by Sinek was the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton of the 1914-16 Trans-Antarctic Expedition. According to Sinek, Shackleton gathered crew members for this expedition by placing the following advertisement in the London Times:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. —Ernest Shackleton.

Another of Sinek’s example is how the Wright Brothers succeeded in achieving the first powered flight, beating a team that was much better funded and seemed to be better placed to succeed, led by Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley.

In Sinek’s view, it’s not a matter of having energy, or skill, or financing; it’s a matter of something deeper. It might be called ‘charisma’, or ’cause’:

Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of ‘Why’. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.

Energy can always be injected into an organization to motivate people to do things. Bonuses, promotions, other carrots and even a few sticks can get people to work harder, for sure, but the gains are, like all manipulations, short-term. Over time, such tactics cost more money and increase stress for employee and employer alike, and eventually will become the main reason people show up for work every day. That’s not loyalty. That’s the employee version of repeat business. Loyalty among employees is when they turn down more money or benefits to continue working at the same company. Loyalty to a company trumps pay and benefits. And unless you’re an astronaut, it’s not the work we do that inspires us either. It’s the cause we come to work for. We don’t want to come to work to build a wall, we want to come to work to build a cathedral.

There’s a bit too much repetition in the book for my liking, and some of the stories in it can be questioned (for example, the advertisement supposedly placed by Shackleton is probably apocryphal).

But the book (like the TED video) has a tremendous potential to cause people to rethink their own personal ‘Why’. Without clarity on this inner motivation, we’re likely to end up merely going through the motions in activities. We might even seem, from outside, to have many achievements under our belts, but we will (to return to Stephen Covey’s analogy) have climbed a ladder leaning against the wrong wall, and we’ll lack the power to inspire the kind of action we truly want to see.

I’ll finish with a few thoughts on what I perceive as my own ‘Why’ – To enable the widespread radically beneficial application of technology:

Technology, deployed wisely, can do wonders to improve the everyday lives of humans everywhere. But technology also has the potential to do very serious damage to human well-being, via unintended disruptions to the environment and the economy, and by putting fearsome weapons in the hands of malcontents.

As a technology super-convergence accelerates over the next 10-20 years, with multiple hard-to-predict interactions, the potential will intensify, both for tremendously good outcomes, and for tremendously bad outcomes. We can’t be sure, but what’s at risk might be nothing less than the survival of humanity.

However, with the right action, by individuals and communities, we can instead witness the emergence of what could be called “super-humanity” – enabled by significant technological enhancements in fields such as synthetic biology, AI, nanotechnology, and clean energy. Progress in these fields will in turn be significantly impacted by developments in the Internet, cloud computing, wireless communications, and personal mobile devices – developments that will ideally result in strong positive collaboration.

The stakes are sky high. We’re all going to need lots of inner personal strength to steer events away from the looming technology super-crisis, towards the radically beneficial outcome that beckons. That’s a cause worthy of great attention. It’s a race that we can’t afford to lose.

19 January 2010

Mobile phones and sustainability

Filed under: Energy, GreenTouch, Mobile Monday, sensors, sustainability — David Wood @ 1:55 am

What role can mobile phones play in reducing energy usage worldwide and assisting the transformation to a sustainable economy?  More widely, what role can the mobile phone industry play in this whole process?

That topic was addressed at yesterday’s Mobile Monday London event, held (unusually) in Brighton.  One of the organisers, Jo Rabin, commented:

As any Londoner knows, Brighton is one of the further suburbs, and like the rest of South London, not on the tube. That said, a modest 50 minutes and £10 return advance booking gets you there in comfort from London’s convenient Victoria station (and others)

The event was entitled “Mobile Application Sustainability” and featured:

One striking claim from near the beginning of the event was when Galit Zadok described the mobile phone as “the least sustainable item of consumer electronics, ever” – on account of the very high numbers of mobile phones which are replaced every year.  To quote from the Green Switch paper (PDF):

an average replacement rate of 18 months, accounting for 500 million handsets replaced last year in Europe alone, … makes the mobile phone the consumer electronic device with the highest replacement rate in history

Galit noted some positive developments too, mainly over phone chargers.  Again quoting from the Green Switch paper:

Regulation is encouraging manufacturers to make reductions in no-load energy demands, and handset manufacturers are responding.  By 2008 Sony Ericsson reduced the average no-load power consumption by more than 90%, whilst Nokia has achieved 80% reduction.

To further spur the industry into action, in October 2009, the ITU has given its stamp of approval to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution. The new Universal Charging Solution (UCS) enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will reduce the energy consumed by the charger. The new UCS standard was based on input from the GSMA, which predicts elimination of 51,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and a subsequent reduction of 13.6 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions each year.

I was less convinced when listening to the claims of the Green Switch speakers that:

  • The power consumption of the handsets themselves amounts to a significant proportion of overall human energy usage;
  • The handset power consumption problem becomes worse, with more and more applications included on the device;
  • Therefore people should be encouraged to use simpler devices – or to run their devices in a “green” mode in which fewer applications are enabled.

To be clear, I’m all in favour of reducing the power used by mobile phone applications, since this will lead to longer periods between battery charging, and will therefore improve user experience.  Short battery life is a long-standing deeply difficult issue for manufacturers of smart mobile handsets.  I’ve also long recognised the problems that are posed as the amount of software included on a device increases.  For example, here’s an excerpt of an “Insight” piece that I wrote for the symbian.com website in November 2006 (copy available here):

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges.  I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster.  Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law.  As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet.  The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software.  Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire (or otherwise drawing too much power) as it performs its incredible calculations.

Flood” is the challenge of coping with enormous quantities of additional software.  Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos breaks loose: software projects delay almost indefinitely in their integration phase (think of Windows Longhorn), and users struggle to find their favourite functionality in amongst seething masses of menu options.  As summarised in Brooks’ Law (which ought to be as famous as Moore’s), “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.  In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Like the problem of fire, flood requires more than just money or people to solve.  It requires the right core software architecture, which allows add-on software to co-exist harmoniously…

So I care about the problems of power usage on mobile phones, and about the problems arising from an abundance of software on these devices.  However, I think it’s misleading to characterise these problems as problems of sustainability.

Here, my thinking follows the lead of David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, as spelt out in his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” and in other writing:

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

(For some more details, page 70 of David Mackay’s book compares power consumption for different household items.)

Nevertheless, despite this quibble, I strongly agree that there’s a great deal that the mobile phone industry should be doing, to reduce energy usage worldwide and assist the transformation to a sustainable economy:

  1. As various speakers noted, applications mobile phones can collect (via various sensors) useful information about a person’s overall energy usage, and present this information back to the user.  Here, rather than being part of the problem, the mobile phone can be part of the solution;
  2. Mobile phones can also help communicate ideas about alternative energy solutions to users – solutions that are relevant to what the user is currently doing;
  3. Improved recycling of mobile phones will help too: making more phones software upgradable will be a step forward;
  4. There’s considerable scope for reducing the energy consumption on the server side of mobile phone networks (where it matters most).

A press release from yesterday highlights an example of the final point.  The press release is entitled “M1 looks at 35% reduction in carbon footprint in Singapore“.  Here’s an excerpt:

MobileOne (M1), the leading mobile operator in Singapore, expects to achieve up to 35% reduction of its telecommunications networks carbon footprint by early 2011. This is made possible by Nokia Siemens Networks Flexi Multiradio base stations. The vendor is currently modernizing M1’s 2G network to prepare it for a smooth transition to Long Term Evolution (LTE).

In addition, M1 is set to start an LTE trial in February 2010. Undertaken in collaboration with Nokia Siemens Networks, the trial will last two months and marks another step in M1’s commitment to deliver an energy efficient, high-speed mobile broadband service to its subscribers.

The LTE trial includes Nokia Siemens Networks’ Flexi Multiradio Base Stations that enhance network coverage and capacity, while lowering site power consumption significantly. This forms part of its end to end Energy Solutions portfolio, which is a clear commitment from Nokia Siemens Networks to drive innovative solutions for energy efficiency…

(Thanks to Stefan Constantinescu, for drawing attention to this particular press release.)

If a 35% carbon footprint reduction sounds impressive, here’s an even larger figure to consider. The newly formed Green Touch consortium announced a bold vision as part of their launch activities last week:

We aim to reduce energy consumption in worldwide ICT networks by a factor of 1000.

This is reiterated in the Green Touch description of “challenges and opportunities“:

The goal of this new consortium is to create the technologies needed to make communications networks 1000 times more energy efficient than they are today.

A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

An early goal for this initiative is to deliver, within five years, a reference architecture, specifications, technology development roadmap and demonstrations of key components needed to realize a fundamental re-design of networks (including the introduction of entirely new technologies) that can reduce energy consumption – both by individuals and in aggregate – by 1000 times as compared to current levels.

Through a focused and collaborative cross-industry initiative, we intend to define the challenge, conduct breakthrough research, and deliver innovative new technologies and sustainable solutions that can be applied across ICT and beyond — for a greener and more sustainable communications future and for the benefit of all.

Their webpage “ICT Industry Combats Climate Change” provides more details:

Research from Bell Labs determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times (four orders of magnitude) more efficient then they are today. This conclusion comes out of Bell Labs’ fundamental analysis of the underlying components of ICT networks and technologies (optical, wireless, electronics, processing, routing, architecture, etc.) and studying their physical limits by applying established formulas such as Shannon’s Law, ‘father of information theory’.

Achieving even one-tenth of Shannon’s lower limit would cut network energy consumption by a factor of 1,000. A thousand-fold reduction in energy consumption is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

These huge gains can only be achieved by rethinking the way telecom networks are designed in terms of low energy processing. Today’s networks are designed for optimal capacity, not efficient energy use. What is needed is a major breakthrough, a radical re-design of networks, and that can only be achieved through the contributions of all essential participants, from basic and applied researchers and component suppliers to network operators, equipment and system suppliers and governments.

While these re-designed networks would dramatically decrease direct ICT energy consumption, the energy savings would be overshadowed by the indirect effects. Because ICT constitutes what the World Economic Forum describes as “our collective nervous system,” touching nearly every industry sector2 a shift in the magnitude of ICT energy usage would reverberate throughout the global economy. By further enabling energy efficiencies across the energy-hungry portions of human enterprise, the ICT sector holds the potential to substantially contribute to the fight against climate change on a global scale…

What kind of people are behind this consortium?  It’s an impressive list:

Service Providers: AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom, Telefonica

Academic Research Labs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES)

Government and Nonprofit Research Institutions: The CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics (Grenoble, France), The Foundation for Mobile Communications (Portugal), imec (Headquarters: Leuven, Belgium), The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA)

Industrial Labs: Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), Freescale Semiconductor.

The press release also contains endorsements from:

  • Dr. Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy
  • Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, UK
  • Christian Estrosi, Minister for Industry, France
  • Jong-Soo Yoon, Director General, Ministry of Environment, South Korea
  • Paulo Campos, Secretary of State for Public Works and Communications, Portugal

Next time MoMo London looks at the topic of mobile sustainability, I hope there will be time to include an update on progress from the Green Touch team!

Footnote: Here’s a ten minute video summary of last week’s press conference launching Green Touch:

24 December 2009

Predictions for the decade ahead

Before highlighting some likely key trends for the decade ahead – the 2010’s – let’s pause a moment to review some of the most important developments of the last ten years.

  • Technologically, the 00’s were characterised by huge steps forwards with social computing (“web 2.0”) and with mobile computing (smartphones and more);
  • Geopolitically, the biggest news has been the ascent of China to becoming the world’s #2 superpower;
  • Socioeconomically, the world is reaching a deeper realisation that current patterns of consumption cannot be sustained (without major changes), and that the foundations of free-market economics are more fragile than was previously widely thought to be the case;
  • Culturally and ideologically, the threat of militant Jihad, potentially linked to dreadful weaponry, has given the world plenty to think about.

Looking ahead, the 10’s will very probably see the following major developments:

  • Nanotechnology will progress in leaps and bounds, enabling increasingly systematic control, assembling, and reprogamming of matter at the molecular level;
  • In parallel, AI (artificial intelligence) will rapidly become smarter and more pervasive, and will be manifest in increasingly intelligent robots, electronic guides, search assistants, navigators, drivers, negotiators, translators, and so on.

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

We’ll see the following applications of nanotechnology and AI:

  • Energy harvesting, storage, and distribution (including via smart grids) will be revolutionised;
  • Reliance on existing means of oil production will diminish, being replaced by greener energy sources, such as next-generation solar power;
  • Synthetic biology will become increasingly commonplace – newly designed living cells and organisms that have been crafted to address human, social, and environmental need;
  • Medicine will provide more and more new forms of treatment, that are less invasive and more comprehensive than before, using compounds closely tailored to the specific biological needs of individual patients;
  • Software-as-a-service, provided via next-generation cloud computing, will become more and more powerful;
  • Experience of virtual worlds – for the purposes of commerce, education, entertainment, and self-realisation – will become extraordinarily rich and stimulating;
  • Individuals who can make wise use of these technological developments will end up significantly cognitively enhanced.

In the world of politics, we’ll see more leaders who combine toughness with openness and a collaborative spirit.  The awkward international institutions from the 00’s will either reform themselves, or will be superseded and surpassed by newer, more informal, more robust and effective institutions, that draw a lot of inspiration from emerging best practice in open source and social networking.

But perhaps the most important change is one I haven’t mentioned yet.  It’s a growing change of attitude, towards the question of the role in technology in enabling fuller human potential.

Instead of people decrying “technical fixes” and “loss of nature”, we’ll increasingly hear widespread praise for what can be accomplished by thoughtful development and deployment of technology.  As technology is seen to be able to provide unprecedented levels of health, vitality, creativity, longevity, autonomy, and all-round experience, society will demand a reprioritisation of resource allocation.  Previous sacrosanct cultural norms will fall under intense scrutiny, and many age-old beliefs and practices will fade away.  Young and old alike will move to embrace these more positive and constructive attitudes towards technology, human progress, and a radical reconsideration of how human potential can be fulfilled.

By the way, there’s a name for this mental attitude.  It’s “transhumanism”, often abbreviated H+.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology, AI, and H+.

As for the question of which countries (or regions) will play the role of superpowers in 2020: it’s too early to say.

Footnote: Of course, there are major possible risks from the deployment of nanotechnology and AI, as well as major possible benefits.  Discussion of how to realise the benefits without falling foul of the risks will be a major feature of public discourse in the decade ahead.

19 November 2009

ELF09: energy, sustainability, and more

Filed under: Economics, Energy, green, solar energy — David Wood @ 3:12 am

On Tuesday I attended the ninth Business Week “European Leadership Forum”, also known by its Twitter hash tag #elf09Business Week are to be congratulated for bringing together a fascinating group of industry leaders.

Here are a few of the points from the course of the day that made me think.

The threat of a new economic crisis

Professor Urs Muller, Managing Director and Chief Economist at BAK Basel Economics, had some worrying thoughts about the state of the global economy:

The good news is that the economic crisis is over.  The bad news is that the conditions responsible for the crisis are still intact, and the next crisis is already brewing.

Like various other speakers and panellists, Professor Muller was concerned about the state of regulation of banking activities.  As we discussed afterwards: “Who would be a regulator?”

It’s hard to identify and agree which elements of banking need new regulation regimes, and which don’t.  However, action by one country alone (for example, by the UK) would fail, since it would merely drive key lines of business elsewhere.  Coordination is needed – but hard!

I asked, how much time do we have?  Do governments have around ten years to reach agreement and take action, or are things more urgent?  Professor Muller replied that if matters were not resolved during 2010, it might already be too late.  Unfortunately, the side effect of the current crisis appearing to be over, is that government attention is liable to diminish.  Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief, prematurely.

This ominous discussion reminded me of remarks made by eminent economist and FT columnist John Kay a few days earlier, at a lunchtime meeting at the RSA, “Banking in the Wake of the Crisis: how will confidence be restored?”  That meeting addressed the questions:

  • Have banks and bankers have really learned the lessons of the crisis?
  • Are we in danger of falling into a dangerous cycle once more?

John Kay gave the answers No and Yes.

On a more positive note, Professor Muller highlighted the FSB (Financial Stability Board) as a cross-border organisation with a strong potential to address banking system vulnerabilities and to develop and implement strong regulatory, supervisory and other policies in the interest of financial stability.  John Kay’s recommendations – in favour of what is called “Narrow banking” – are contained in a 95-page PDF “The Reform of Banking Regulation” available from his website.

In search of the European Bill Gates

Earlier in the day, INSEAD Professor Soumitra Dutta and serial technology entrepreneur Niklas Zennström led a discussion “INNOVATION – What is the next generation? The next wave?”

Questions posed included why there was no real equivalent, in Europe, to Bill Gates, and which field of technology is likely to prove the most important in the near-term future.

I liked the answer given by Professor Dutta:

The next big wave of hitech innovation is improving the quality of life – including both improving the environment, and improving healthcare.

However, these technologies should not be viewed as alternatives to ICT (Information and Communications Technology).  Instead, these technology areas will succeed by implementing the next wave of ICT.  But instead of just experiencing “the Internet of websites”, we will see “the Internet of things”.

Alternatives to dependency on growth

Running near the surface of much of the discussion during the day was the theme of growth and sustainability.

Opening keynote speaker Stephen Green, Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings Plc, put it as follows:

The biggest change arising from the economic crisis is that companies must stop focussing on short-term value maximisation, and should instead focus on sustainable value maximisation.

Later, from the floor, Professor Dutta posed the simple question,

Is growth good?

I didn’t hear a satisfactory answer.  I did hear the answer that “business needs growth”, but that just skirts the issue.

Interestingly, Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the same issue in his keynote address at the General Assembly conference of the Club of Rome on 26 October 2009, in Amsterdam.  Here’s an extract:

A low-carbon economy is only a part of this new economic model we need so badly today. The model that has been around for the past five decades should be replaced. Of course, it cannot be achieved overnight, but I think we can already discuss reference points and general contours of this new model.

It means, above all, the overcoming of the economy’s ‘addiction’ to super-profits and hyper-consumption, which is not possible unless societies reshape their values. It means shifting of the increasingly larger swaths of the economy to production of ‘social goods’, among which the sustainable environment takes a centre stage.

These social goods also include human health in the broad sense of the word, education, culture, equal opportunities, and social unity, including the elimination of the glaring gaps between the rich and the poor.

Society needs all this not only because ethical imperatives dictate it. The economic benefits to be brought by these “goods” are enormous. However, economists are yet to learn how to measure them. An intellectual breakthrough is needed here. A new model of economy can not be built without it.

Energy and sustainability

The #elf09 gathering split up during the afternoon into a series of six parallel discussions.  Along with around 40 other people, I took part in a roundtable discussion on “Energy and sustainability”.

The discussion was led by Mark Williams, Downstream Director of Royal Dutch Shell, and Sophia Tickell, Executive Director of SustainAbility.

Mark Williams made the following points (I apologise in advance for condensing a much richer set of messages):

  • Almost certainly, the total energy needs of the world will double by 2050;
  • It seems highly unlikely that this vast energy requirement can be met by non-fossil fuels;
  • We need to prepare for a scenario in which at least 70% of the world’s energy needs in 2050 will still be met by fossil fuels;
  • In other words, “we have to come to grips with carbon”;
  • Even as we continue to rely on fossil fuels, we have to “decarbonise” the system;
  • There’s no reasonable alternative to developing and deploying technology for widespread CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage);
  • It’s already possible to store CO2 underground, safely, “for geological amounts of time”;
  • It’s true that there is public concern over the prospect of leaks of stored CO2, and over failures in warning systems to detect leaks, but “governments will have to take the lead in public education”.

Timescales to adopt new sources of energy

Mark Williams made the point that, so far, it has taken any new source of energy at least 25 years to achieve 1% of global energy delivery.  That point should be kept in mind, to avoid anyone becoming “too optimistic about new energy sources”.

In response, people around the table asked:

  • Would the equivalent of a war-time situation provide a different kind of reaction from both markets and governments?  Do we have to accept that we’ll have the same mindsets as before?

Mark answered:

  • Don’t underestimate “the tyranny of the installed base”;
  • Alternative energy sources have to face very significant issues with storage and transport: “electricity is not easily stored”.

I tried a different tack:

  • Consider the fact that, 25 years ago, there were virtually no mobile phones in use.  Over that timescale, enormous infrastructure has been put in place around the planet, and nowadays more than half of the world’s population use mobile phones.  Countless technical difficulties were solved en route;
  • Key to this build-out has been the fact that many companies were prepared to make huge financial investments, anticipating even larger financial paybacks as people use mobile technology;
  • If energy pricing is set properly (including full consideration for “negative externalities“), won’t companies find sufficient incentives to invest heavily in sustainable energy sources, and develop solutions – roughly similar to what happened for the mobile industry?
  • As a specific example, what about the prospects for gigantic harvesting of solar energy from a scheme such as Desertec (as described here)?

Mark answered:

  • The investment needed for new energy sources (at the scale required) dwarfs the investment even of the mobile telephony industry;
  • New energy sources have too much ground to catch up.  For example, every year, China installs as many additional coal-based energy generators as the entire existing UK installed base of such generators.

Around the table, it seemed generally agreed that we do need to prepare for a scenario in which fossil fuels remain in very substantial use over the decades ahead.

The role of green subsidies

Sophia Tickell raised the question of whether government subsidies could make a significant difference to the speed of transition to renewable energy sources.  South Korea is perhaps the leading example of where a government green stimulus package is having a significant effect.

Attractive beneficiaries for government subsidies (to recap earlier discussion) would presumably include products for electrical storage and CCS.

On the other hand, it’s possible for governments to pick losers as well as winners, with consequent waste of public funds.  Also, government subsidies can in some cases lead to technology failing to develop as efficiently and as innovatively as it ought to.  For this reason, it was suggested that “the environmental movement may have oversold the idea of a Green New Deal”.

Discussion continued:

  • Government should be putting the right framework in place, for market mechanisms to drive the selection and development of desirable products.  This includes identifying and allocating the costs of negative externalities, and establishing a proper “level playing field”;
  • When a desirable momentum is emerging in the marketplace, governments should be getting behind it.

I asked: is it already clear what is this “desirable momentum” that governments should be getting behind?  People around the table started listing options.  It quickly became a long list.  This provoked the following insightful comment from Juan Pablo Crespi, COO Europe of Alkol – to whom I’ll give the final word:

There are too many momentums – but not enough permanentums!

9 November 2009

Sustainable energy without the hot air

Filed under: books, Energy, Nuclear energy, solar energy — David Wood @ 1:00 am

Over the last ten days, I’ve been reading “Sustainable energy – without the hot air“.

It’s no surprise that the reviews for it on Amazon.com are, at time of writing, 95% 5-star, and only 5% 4-star.  In many way, this an exemplary book:

  1. The book is made up of easily digestible chunks;
  2. Each chunk contains numbers.  Anyone who disagrees with the conclusions of the book is therefore invited to identify the numbers that they disagree with;
  3. In each case, the author explains where the various numbers come from;
  4. The author makes the numbers seem plausible, but also provides copious references for people to investigate by themselves;
  5. Mathematical formulae are provided too – but separated into appendices at the end of the book, to avoid detracting from the main flow of the argument;
  6. The author punctures a lot of what might be called “hot air” – which he also calls “twaddle”: wishful thinking about how sustainable energy might be achieved;
  7. There are many “mythconceptions” sections where various widespread notions are gently but firmly dismantled;
  8. The text is accompanied by a set of very clear diagrams;
  9. The author sets out a range of possible solutions, rather than identifying a single way forwards;
  10. The author makes it clear that none of the solutions are going to be easy, and each will require substantial (“country-sized”) changes.

Since publishing the book, the author – David JC MacKay, physics professor at Cambridge University – has been appointed Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change – an appointment that took effect on 1st October 2009.

The author says he seeks to avoid being labelled as “pro-wind” or “pro-nuclear”, declaring instead that he wishes to be known as “pro-arithmetic”.  Whatever solutions are contemplated, he says, must meet the test of adding up.  He disagrees with those who say that “if everyone does a little, it will add up to a lot”.  Instead, he says, if everyone does a little, it will add up to a little.  That’s because of the scale of the total amount of energy used by an entire country.  Actions need to be effective:

Here are two simple individual actions. One is useless, one is very effective.

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

In contrast, turning the thermostat down (or the air-conditioning in hot climates) is the single most effective energy-saving technology available to a typical person.

Every degree you turn it down will reduce your heating costs by 10%; and, speaking of Britain at least, heating is likely to be the biggest form of energy consumption in most buildings.

The entire book is available free online.  The online summaries (eg page 238239) reiterate the following point:

We have a clear conclusion: the non-solar renewables may be “huge,” but they are not huge enough. To complete a plan that adds up, we must rely on one or more forms of solar power. Or use nuclear power. Or both.

Any viable solar power solutions need to consider collecting energy from sunnier climates, and then transporting huge amounts of that energy to sun-deprived countries like the UK.  From page 178:

…focusing on Europe, “what area is required in the North Sahara to supply everyone in Europe and North Africa with an average European’s power consumption? Taking the population of Europe and North Africa to be 1 billion, the area required drops to 340 000 km2, which corresponds to a square 600 km by 600 km. This area is equal to one Germany, to 1.4 United Kingdoms, or to 16 Waleses.

The UK’s share of this 16-Wales area would be one Wales: a 145 km by 145 km square in the Sahara would provide all the UK’s current primary energy consumption.

Backing up this idea, David MacKay speaks favourably about the Desertec concept.  From the Desertec website:

In the upcoming decades, several global developments will create new challenges for mankind. We will be confronted with problems and obstacles such as climate change, population growth beyond earth’s capacity, and an increase in demand for energy and water caused by a strive for prosperity and expansion.

The DESERTEC Concept provides a way to solve these challenges…

The DESERTEC Concept describes the perspective of a sustainable supply of electricity for Europe (EU), the Middle East (ME) and North Africa (NA) up to the year 2050. It shows that a transition to competitive, secure and compatible supply is possible using renewable energy sources and efficiency gains, and fossil fuels as backup for balancing power.

A close cooperation between EU and MENA for market introduction of renewable energy and interconnection of electricity grids by high-voltage direct-current transmission are keys for economic and physical survival of the whole region. However, the necessary measures will take at least two decades to become effective. Therefore, adequate policy and economic frameworks for their realization must be introduced immediately. The role of sustainable energy to secure freshwater supplies based on seawater desalination is also addressed.

David MacKay’s chapter on nuclear energy is also an eye-opener.  It ably addresses the objections that have been made against nuclear energy.  Among the positive messages in this chapter:

…the nuclear energy available per atom is roughly one million times bigger than the chemical energy per atom of typical fuels. This means that the amounts of fuel and waste that must be dealt with at a nuclear reactor can be up to one million times smaller than the amounts of fuel and waste at an equivalent fossil-fuel power station.

…I conclude that ocean extraction of uranium would turn today’s once-through reactors into a “sustainable” option

…Japanese researchers have found a technique for extracting uranium from seawater at a cost of $100–300 per kilogram of uranium, in comparison with a current cost of about $20/kg for uranium from ore. Because uranium contains so much more energy per ton than traditional fuels, this 5-fold or 15-fold increase in the cost of uranium would have little effect on the cost of nuclear power: nuclear power’s price is dominated by the cost of power-station construction and decommissioning, not by the cost of the fuel. Even a price of $300/kg would increase the cost of nuclear energy by only about 0.3 p per kWh. The expense of uranium extraction could be reduced by combining it with another use of seawater – for example, power-station cooling.

…we must not let ourselves be swept off our feet in horror at the danger of nuclear power. Nuclear power is not infinitely dangerous. It’s just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories, fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous. Even if we have no guarantee against nuclear accidents in the future, I think the right way to assess nuclear is to compare it objectively with other sources of power. Coal power stations, for example, expose the public to nuclear radiation, because coal ash typically contains uranium. Indeed, according to a paper published in the journal Science, people in America living near coal-fired power stations are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants.

…Spurred on by worries about nuclear accidents, engineers have devised many new reactors with improved safety features. The GT-MHR power plant, for example, is claimed to be inherently safe; and, moreover it has a higher efficiency of conversion of heat to electricity than conventional nuclear plants

…the volumes are so small, I feel nuclear waste is only a minor worry, compared with all the other forms of waste we are inflicting on future generations. At 25 ml per year, a lifetime’s worth of high-level nuclear waste would amount to less than 2 litres. Even when we multiply by 60 million people, the lifetime volume of nuclear waste doesn’t sound unmanageable: 105 000 cubic metres. That’s the same volume as 35 olympic swimming pools. If this waste were put in a layer one metre deep, it would occupy just one tenth of a square kilometre.

There are already plenty of places that are off-limits to humans. I may not trespass in your garden. Nor should you in mine. We are neither of us welcome in Balmoral. “Keep out” signs are everywhere. Downing Street, Heathrow airport, military facilities, disused mines – they’re all off limits. Is it impossible to imagine making another one-square-kilometre spot – perhaps deep underground – off limits for 1000 years?

…the assertion that “civil nuclear construction on this scale is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible” is poppycock. Yes, it’s a big construction rate, but it’s in the same ballpark as historical construction rates.

So far, I haven’t found any significant criticism of the points made in this book.  It’s highly recommended.  You may also enjoy David MacKay’s blog.

Footnote: for further reading on nuclear energy, take a look at “10 reasons to support nuclear power“; and for more about Desertec, see their FAQ.

29 October 2009

Searching for energy

Filed under: books, Energy — David Wood @ 12:22 am

Three big, important questions seem to defy consensus:

  1. How serious a matter is humanity’s increasing usage of energy?
  2. Will “business as usual” find suitable ways to keep on supplying sufficient energy in response to market needs, or is some special concerted action necessary?
  3. If some special concerted action is required, what should that be?  For example, should extra priority be placed on nuclear energy, solar energy, wind power, selected new biofuels, or what?

When I picked up the latest Scientific American, I experienced a short flush of optimism.  The cover story is “A plan for a sustainable future: How to get all energy from wind, water and solar power by 2030”.

The authors of the piece in question appear to have excellent credentials:

  • Mark Z. Jacobson is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program there;
  • Mark A. Delucchi is a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

The key concepts of the article are listed as follows:

  • Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe;
  • The authors’ plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide;
  • The cost of generating and transmitting power would be less than the projected cost per kilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power;
  • Shortages of a few specialty materials, along with lack of political will, loom as the greatest obstacles.

The authors accept that the figure of 3.8 million wind turbines may sound enormous, but point out that the world manufactures 73 million cars and light trucks every year.  They note:

Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations.  The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before;

During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more;

In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.

I read the article carefully.  It all seemed to make good sense to me.

But then I looked on the Scientific American website, at the online comments for this articleAnd then things seemed much less clear.

One comment speaks up in favour of selected bio-fuels:

The November 2009 article “A Path To Sustainable Energy By 2030” is based on a false premise and then naturally develops the wrong solution…

All carbon-based fuels are not created equal. Replacing FOSSIL fuels with BIO fuels would also work.  Not all biofuels are created equal either…

Another comment refers to some analysis that reaches a much less encouraging view about wind energy:

Tom Blees has just written a devastating analysis … that just blows away any dreams of Wind becoming an effective substitute for fossil fuels

and continues by dismissing the potential for solar energy too.  Instead, nuclear energy is recommended as the best way forwards.

Another comment laments:

The article is in direct conflict with David JC MacKay’s book: “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” (which is available free online). He does a detailed analysis of many renewable and not-so-renewable sources of energy, and the basic conclusion is that without nuclear, it doesn’t work.

My question for the authors and SciAm editors, is “what are we poor non-scientists to make of all of this?” We don’t have the resources or time to compare these conflicting books/articles head to head. You could do us a tremendous service, and help the public debate along by doing so.

Reading the SciAm article, a bunch of folks are going to say, “peachy: we’re done. All the world has to do is spend 5 trillion a year for 20 years.” Those reading MacKay’s book will say, “Peachy: bring on the nuc’s and we’re all set.”

We are inundated with conflicting information that we cannot verify, so each faction picks the data that serves its ends, and blathers  away on some TV show, then some politicians simplify it even more, and use it to push an unknown agenda.

And so the debate continued.

Happily, the book mentioned in this comment – “Sustainable Energy – Without the hot air“, authored by Cambridge University Physics Professor David MacKay – looks like being a significant step forwards.

I remembered that my long-time friend Martin Budden, whose opinions I greatly respect, had already recommended this book to me.  This book is available for free online.  For ease of reading, I bought a bound copy today on the way home from central London.

I’ve only read the opening sections so far, but they convey a strong air of natural authority, and resonate well with me:

I recently read two books, one by a physicist, and one by an economist.

In Out of Gas, Caltech physicist David Goodstein describes an impending energy crisis brought on by The End of the Age of Oil. This crisis is coming soon, he predicts: the crisis will bite, not when the last drop of oil is extracted, but when oil extraction can’t meet demand – perhaps as soon as 2015 or 2025. Moreover, even if we magically switched all our energy-guzzling to nuclear power right away, Goodstein says, the oil crisis would simply be replaced by a nuclear crisis in just twenty years or so, as uranium reserves also became depleted.

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg paints a completely different picture. “Everything is fine.” Indeed, “everything is getting better.” Furthermore, “we are not headed for a major energy crisis,” and “there is plenty of energy.”

How could two smart people come to such different conclusions? I had to get to the bottom of this…

I’m concerned about cutting UK emissions of twaddle – twaddle about sustainable energy. Everyone says getting off fossil fuels is important, and we’re all encouraged to “make a difference,” but many of the things that allegedly make a difference don’t add up.

Twaddle emissions are high at the moment because people get emotional (for example about wind farms or nuclear power) and no-one talks about numbers. Or if they do mention numbers, they select them to sound big, to make an impression, and to score points in arguments, rather than to aid thoughtful discussion.

This is a straight-talking book about the numbers. The aim is to guide the reader around the claptrap to actions that really make a difference and to policies that add up…

It doesn’t take long to see that the characterisation of this book given by the earlier comment I quoted above – “bring on the nuc’s and we’re all set” – is a gross distortion.  Instead, here’s a taste of the conclusions (taken from pages 116 and 117):

Are you eager to know the end of the story right away? Here is a quick summary, a sneak preview of Part II.

First, we electrify transport. Electrification both gets transport off fossil fuels, and makes transport more energy-efficient. (Of course, electrification increases our demand for green electricity.)

Second, to supplement solar-thermal heating, we electrify most heating of air and water in buildings using heat pumps, which are four times more efficient than ordinary electrical heaters. This electrification of heating further increases the amount of green electricity required.

Third, we get all the green electricity from a mix of four sources: from our own renewables; perhaps from “clean coal;” perhaps from nuclear; and finally, and with great politeness, from other countries’ renewables.

Among other countries’ renewables, solar power in deserts is the most plentiful option. As long as we can build peaceful international collaborations, solar power in other people’s deserts certainly has the technical potential to provide us, them, and everyone with 125 kWh per day per person.

Questions? Read on…

So far, so good.  I particularly like the level of clarity and intellectual rigour in what I’ve read of the book so far.  I hope my new flush of optimism doesn’t deflate in the same way as before!

I’ll be putting my tentative opinions to the test again this Sunday, by listening to the “Battle of Ideas” held at London’s Royal College of Arts, organised by the Institute of Ideas.  Three of the debates cover energy topics:

  • From 10.45-12.15 there’s a debate ABUNDANT, CHEAP, CLEAN…CONTENTIOUS?  WHY IS ENERGY A BATTLEFIELD TODAY? From environmental to security concerns, energy is a big issue – how much, where from and what type?We are warned that coal is dirty, oil is running out, and nuclear is risky, so what is the future of energy?Will new sources of energy boost human prosperity, or simply accelerate the destruction of the planet?
  • This is followed, from 13.45-15.15, by a debate THE NEW NUCLEAR AGE? Nuclear energy is championed by some as the best way to meet rising power needs while protecting the environment, but others are anxious about the risks. Could nuclear power create a more resilient energy system and bring energy to the developing world, or is it a disaster waiting to happen?
  • Finally, from 15.45-17.15, the afternoon rounds off with a debate HOW TO SOLVE THE ENERGY CRISIS: MORE THAN LIGHTBULBS AND LIFESTYLE? Campaigners and politicians urge us to use less energy day-to-day, but can individual consumers really make a difference? Is it time to change the expectation that economic growth means ever more, and carefree, energy use? Or can we aspire to a future where we are not obsessed with reducing consumption?

Two of the speakers in these debates are James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, authors of the book “Energise – the future of energy innovation” which I’ve previous mentioned.  The speakers as a whole cover a large range of opinions.  Hopefully the “battle” will generate light as well as heat.

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.

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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