Government, energy & environment

Distributed energy generation

Here’s a future to ponder. The year is 2030 and people are looking back to 2014 when electricity was generated in huge power stations and sent to buildings via extensive pipe networks. Except for a few committed greenies, nobody in 2014 was making their own electricity as they do now and, even if they did, they didn’t have the means to store it over long periods. Nobody understood the spot price of electricity back then, nor did anyone think of using their car to run their fridge or computer.

The electricity market today is in a state of flux, to put it mildly. In most countries the centrally controlled infrastructure used to power our daily lives is ageing and business models are outmoded. For instance, one report by the European Commission, says $US17 trillion of investment is needed across Europe just to bring existing infrastructure up to date.

Demand is skyrocketing. Some forecasts suggest the US and UK will need to produce 30% more energy by 2050 just to keep up with demand, although others predict electricity use will fall with the decline of heavy manufacturing.

So what’s next? In the long term, the answer is almost undoubtedly smart grids –grids in which electricity and information flows in more than one direction. Smart devices will become ubiquitous. They will constantly send data concerning status and power use back to the generators, which will have the ability to turn certain power-hungry devices off to prevent surges and shortages of supply, possibly in return for preferential rates.

One implication of smart grids is privacy concerns and especially hacking. If someone else is able to monitor or hack into individual buildings or systems, they can determine whether or not someone is at home. More worrying is the thought of hackers injecting viruses that attack domestic energy systems or bring entire networks down.�

One solution to this, which also addresses the genuine problem of ageing networks, is ‘community grids’. These would create resilience by generating energy locally and buying and selling power locally. Think of this as an ‘internet of energy’ if you like, where consumers are also creators.

Community grids would by definition be more reliant on local supply and demand and would feed in locally produced renewable energy also. Being smaller and closer, these micro-grids would lose less power in transmission. They could link to local storage solutions too, possibly even to battery units in each dwelling or in electric vehicles. To make such a system work, effectively billions if not trillions of electrical devices would need to be linked, although energy storage itself would still rely on economies of scale.

And herein lies the dilemma. The current system of national and regional grids is hugely inefficient in many ways, but is still very reliable overall. Grids will undoubtedly change in the future and the only questions are how, when and by how much.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 22 June 2013, ‘Electric Avenue’ by C. Williams.
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Search words: Energy, distribution, grids, networks, power, electricity
Trend tags: Networks, distributed, community

Internet activism

According to a survey by Boston Consulting (BCG), 75% of people would give up alcohol, 70% would stop drinking coffee, 27% would stop having sex, 40% would give up exercise and 22% would forgo daily showers just so they could access the internet for a year - if they were forced to choose.

This might seem a strange way to make a point about internet activism, but it does go some way to show how strongly many people are starting to feel about access rights to digital connectivity. But do such feelings about connectivity translate into activism?

Whether or not free speech and democracy will be extended by the spread of new information technologies - or constrained by governments and companies seeking to control such technologies - is a concern that is likely to grow in importance in the years ahead.

On one side of the debate is a fluid network of net activists who have grown up in a digital world and believe that more or less everything can be shared and that ownership and privacy are both outdated concepts. Any move to restrain or restrict net freedom is therefore an attack on individual liberty, individual expression and experimentation, and should be resisted.

The other side of the debate consists of various (generally older) interests that have grown up in a physical world and are organised within more rigid pyramidal command and control structures, such as the law. A core belief of this group is that most goods are rival and cannot easily be shared, and both privacy and intellectual property are essential for the proper functioning of society. Quite where things will end up is anyone’s guess.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 5 January 2013, ‘Everything is connected’.
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Search words: Activism
Trend tags: Internet

Carbon negative fuels

In the US, corn-based biofuels now account for 8% of US transport fuel and consume 40% of the country’s corn crop. However, crop-based biofuels are problematic for a number of reasons. First, they compete with food crops for arable land. Second, they can be far from carbon neutral let alone carbon negative. For example, crop-based biofuels need fertiliser to grow and mechanisation to harvest. The ethanol plants themselves are also heavy users of CO2-releasing fuels. So what’s the solution?

One idea is algic biofuels, which use algae to create oil. The algae can be grown on wasteland, on brackish water or in the ocean. Furthermore, genetic manipulation can really boost the amount of oil produced. Once the oil has been extracted from the algae, what is left holds a lot of carbon, which can then be buried. The fuel then becomes carbon negative in the sense that it takes more carbon out of the atmosphere overall than it emits.

The technology has limitations. The first is cost. While an area 25% the size of the Libyan desert could produce enough oil to replace the world’s crude oil production, the polycarbonate tubes needed would cost more than $1 million per hectare. This means algal biofuels would cost at least $5 per litre. A solution to this problem could be to float plastic bags of algae in the sea. Sunlight would activate the algae and wave motion would stir the solution. However, the process still needs nutrients, currently expensive nitrogen and phosphorus. Presently, the whole US supply of both would produce only 10% of US liquid fuel.

However, it’s possible to replace this with waste biomass or even CO2 from industrial production. The only problem then is where can you get huge amounts of CO2? Furthermore, using smokestack outputs as an industrial input merely offsets emissions into the future. One solution to this problem is to extract and concentrate CO2 directly from the air - and this is exactly what a number of companies are trying to do next.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 8 December 2012, ‘Less than zero’ by B. Holmes.
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Search words: Fuels, biotechnology, synthetic biology, carbon negative
Trend tags: Carbon emissions, climate change

An old threat for a new era?

Around 10% of the European workforce is unemployed. In some European nations the numbers are far worse. In Spain, for example, the national unemployment rate is 25% and double that for younger Spaniards, 50%. Overall, youth (under 25s) unemployment across Europe stands at 22%, compared to 15% of 16-24 year olds in America, and in Australia is a shocking 25.5% for 15-19-year olds.

Such dire unemployment figures mean trouble. A few observers have linked these numbers with the rise of neo-Nazism across Europe and the general rightwards shift in European politics. While anti-immigration rhetoric is on the rise, particularly that aimed at Muslims, a link between youth unemployment and far-right politics is less convincing. More often than not, youth unemployment results in political apathy rather than radicalism.

One answer is to look at the history of political culture. In Spain, for example, neo-fascist parties are almost non-existent despite Spain’s relatively recent fascist history. Contrast this with France, where unemployment is relatively low yet far right politicians have made notable gains at the polls.

A compelling reason why popular discontent has not been translated into far-right votes in many European nations is that many established conservative parties have adopted some of the policies put forward by their far right competitors. Top of the list are anti-immigration policies, but economic protectionism, especially the ‘re-sourcing’ of jobs outsourced to Asia a decade or two ago, features strongly too.

Radical far-right politics is one thing we might see in the future, in Europe and elsewhere. But more likely a frantic search for national identity brought on by globalisation and global connectivity. In some instances this will spill over into instances of xenophobia that will feed on threats that are both real and imagined. Whether or not national insecurity is ever translated into political extremism will partly depend on whether or not people are robbed of hope for the future or are humiliated economically.

Ref: New Statesman (UK) 27 June 2013, ‘Europe on the verge of a nervous breakdown’, by R. Evans.
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Search words: 1930s, recession, unemployment, far right, fascism, downturn
Trend tags: Austerity, rightwards shift

The dash for gas

There seem to be two views of the future of energy. The first is doom: you cannot have exponential population growth on a finite planet, especially if heavily reliant on extracting natural resources. The opposing view is more optimistic. The reason we still exist as a species is that we are smart and adaptable and we can eventually solve every problem we create.

Demand for energy is indeed rising and supplies of oil are running out, but there is plenty of coal left. (This could be our primary source of energy by 2017 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)). Well they would say that wouldn’t they? They take advice from the CIAB. The Coal Industry Advisory Board (CIAB) is a group of high level executives from coal-related industrial enterprises, established by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in July 1979 to provide advice to the IEA on a wide range of issues relating to coal.

While various renewables are not scalable at present, they soon could be. But the main reason for optimism in energy circles is shale gas that can be accessed via hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Fracking has had a bad press. Yet, in the US it is one of the primary reasons why US carbon emissions have fallen by 9% since 2005 – compared to an increase of 33% between 1981 and 2005. It is also the main reason why the US could be energy self-sufficient by 2035 (IEA figures so beware of inbuilt bias). Gas is already cheaper than coal in the US and China. China is currently the world’s largest consumer of coal and the world’s largest producer of CO2 emissions and thought to be sitting on the world’s largest deposits of shale gas. By 2035 there could be over 1 million shale gas wells in operation worldwide.

However, any energy policy based on cheap energy in the future thanks to shale gas, could be in for a big shock. Prices for gas in the US are currently low due to various technological innovations such as horizontal drilling. But once the first phase of exploration is over, many experts expect the price to rise substantially. Moreover, the vagaries of geology mean all shale gas deposits are different and many could be inaccessible. In China, many reserves are in the wrong place – the water-starved desert of Xinjiang and the mountains of earthquake-prone Sichuan, for example. Poland has many deposits that have proven elusive for reasons that nobody really understands.

Clearly shale gas is not a magic bullet solution and there is unlikely to be a wholesale swap of coal (or oil) for gas. There are genuine environmental concerns about fracking contaminating groundwater supplies and releasing methane into the atmosphere. Worse, the current focus on gas could be bad news because it obviates the need to develop renewable alternatives.

The obsession with gas has not and will not stop people from burning coal. We are simply shifting the locations where the coal is burned. In the US, for instance, coal exports reached a record 104 million tonnes in 2012 and energy companies will usually burn coal if it is cheaper than gas. If used wisely, and in combination with other fuels, especially renewables, gas could be hugely important. But if gas is seen as the primary source of energy, it could end up being a vastly expensive bridge to nowhere.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 10 August 2013, ‘Frack to the future’ by M. Brooks.
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Search words: Shale gas, fracking
Trend tags: environment, energy