Energy Darwinism

By Robert Hickson 20/02/2014 2

If fossil fuels are the figurative dinosaurs in the energy landscape, are renewables the agile rodents poised to take over the world?

That’s an on-going and often intense debate. Will new technologies enable the fossil fuel industry to adapt and provide us all the oil (and gas) that we could possibly ever need? Will renewable sources of energy evolve rapidly to be reliable enough and cost competitive (without subsidies) with fossil fuels (with their continued subsidies) in the short term?

BP’s latest energy outlook 2035 forecasts a rise of 41% in total energy consumption by 2035, but fossil fuels (notably gas) lumber on as the dominant energy source.  Renewables (excluding hydro-electric) may only represent 7% of total energy sources by then.

BP, in line with other energy forecasts, predict slower growth rates in energy use globally, and a decline in energy intensity (ie more bang from your barrel of oil, bottle of gas, or bucket of coal), particularly in developed countries. However, global carbon dioxide emissions may increase by 29% based on those energy projections.

Regardless of their views on whether the fossils or renewables will dominate the rest of this century,  most commentators note that the energy and electricity industries are in a state of transition.

Citigroup refer to the transformation of the energy industry as Energy Darwinism.

It’s not sudden extinction or survival of the fittest, but more about co-evolving. And adaptive radiation. Fossil fuel plants are adapting to become more flexible, and less required to provide most of the demand.

Solar technologies seem to have the most adaptive potential. They are developing the most rapidly, with the greatest efficiency gains and cost reductions in energy technologies. Solar technologies seem like the smart phones or flat screen TVs of today. If I was thinking about installing solar power, and could afford to wait, I’d hold off for a couple of years

A combination of lower energy demand, volatile fossil fuel prices, low carbon prices, and increasing renewable generation capacities in some European countries energy utility companies in Europe  (and in parts of the US) are struggling, and investment in fossil fuel plants is declining. One report  suggests that Europe will close down 30% of its fossil fuel energy capacity over the next few years.

The world’s largest solar thermal power plant has begun operating in California. But some think it may be an evolutionary dead end, with other less expensive solar technologies being economically “fitter”.

Germany and Hawaii are examples where there has been greater adoption of wind and solar energy. Some point to places like these as showing the way, whereas others suggest that government subsidies make these unrealistic models. Germans are becoming concerned over their high power prices (although this often has more to do with the price of natural gas and reduced coal generation than with subsidies for renewables).

In New Zealand while individuals have often been able to switch off from the national grid, it’s been harder for communities to establish their own energy independence so far

The transition isn’t just about the generating technologies, so policies and initiatives just focusing on supporting new renewable forms of energy aren’t sufficient. The distribution network needs to also change to cope with the different supply capabilities and ensure energy is delivered to where it needs to be when it needs to be. California and Texas provide good examples of how these can change

To continue over stretching the evolutionary metaphor, it’s also about the social and political environments. Public opposition to new energy generation and transmission lines can also hamper energy transitions

Energy policy is entwined with climate change and industrial/economic development policies, although they aren’t always considered together.

Ongoing debate about climate change policy in the EU is also creating uncertainty for energy and industrial policies. And in the US there is a push to develop energy policies relevant to this century.

Amory Lovins, from the Rocky Mountain Institute, encourages us to celebrate the disruptive energy technologies (at least the renewable ones) and seize the opportunity to transform energy systems.

Meanwhile, a report from the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, signals possible indirect adverse geopolitical effects from the US’s new found energy independence. These may include China and India competing in the Middle East for the oil and gas there, and greater instability in some of Europe’s neighbours if demand for their fossil fuels declines rapidly.

You never know what the consequences of evolution will be. That doesn’t mean avoid change, but it does mean we need to think broadly of all the things that need to be in place (or to be prepared for) to have the best chance of a liveable, affordable and desirable future.

2 Responses to “Energy Darwinism”

  • I wonder what the synthesis between superconductor distribution and solar generation will bring.
    And whether a distributed network of mini-thorium reactors connected by superconductors will replace most fossil fuel, large scale nuclear and hydro electricity generation.

    Vested social and economic interests will hamper the rollout of more cost effective energy solutions, and in the absence of strong political directives render any short term benefits of “disruptive technologies” questionable. The political context for radical shifts in energy technology needs to be prepared in advance of the business transition to encourage those vested interests to participate constructively in the transition. The present generation system in NZ is threatened by resource depletion, climatic changes and old worn infrastructure due for costly maintenance or replacement. But rather than encourage diversification or investment in new technologies, the state seems more interested in divestment.
    It seems odd that a school in Nelson is presently leading the way in “large scale” solar generation in NZ.

  • We are living in science an industrialists dream. The great inventor with energy being sidelined to an obscure mad scientist whilst everyone knows who invented the light bulb.
    Energy is politics and a lack of funding for alternatives and the top scientist spending billions trying to find a part to the theory, that will not give us freedom from this economic tyranny of enslavement to the cartels of energy (conspiracy ? $200 trillion worldwide they have a lot to hide).
    LENR a phenomenon that could help us, ridiculed with no press coverage or funding but science here is winning.
    Empty space empty ? no filled with cosmic energy. The universe is filled with electricity but that is not what they teach us to believe,. Like I said an industrialists dream this quest for fossil fuels.