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13.06.19

[Article] The future of energy by Leo Johnson

Leo Johnson, an expert in the economy and sustainable development, spoke at a Hager Forum conference on the circular economy in September 2018. He took this idea even further in a first article on the future of the circular economy published in April 2019. In this new article, Leo Johnson invites us to think further about the future of energy while also offering some answers using concrete examples, an economic approach, a state of play and some projections for the short to medium term. Find out more about the future of energy.

Are citizens’ movements key to the future of energy? 

“Sous les pavés, la plage”, the Situationists used to say during the May ‘68 Paris riots. “Underneath the pavement, the beach.” Okay it’s not a beach, but London’s Waterloo Bridge, congestion-central on an average day, a fume-clogged heavy goods vehicle artery right into the heart of the city, has been blocked off and turned before my eyes into a crowd-sourced car-free Garden Bridge. It’s a pop up Situationist paradise, complete with Pétanque, pot plants, jugglers and vegan chilli-serving yurts. Welcome to the Extinction Rebellion, a snowballing people power movement to combat climate change that launched with naked campaigners gluing their buttocks to the walls of the House of Commons. Is this a glimpse into the Future of energy? Where politics has failed, is the power of the people going to accelerate a renewable energy future?

Is there still a pathway out of global warming?

Look at the numbers and it looks hard to see a credible pathway. An estimated 91% of global energy use is still fossil fuel-dependent, a figure unchanged for thirty years. To avoid more than 1.5° warming we need to decarbonise at more than double the current rate. But since the landmark Paris agreement in 2016, global banks have instead invested an additional $1.9 trillion in fossil fuels. Global Carbon Dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency, rose by 1.7% in 2018, to a record 33 billion tonnes. Not much grounds for optimism, you might reckon. But there is one big factor that makes me think a transition towards renewables may be ahead that is more sudden one than people think. And it’s not just the people power that’s giving me hope. It’s the economics.

How can we define an energy strategy? What economic tool do we have to hand?

What’s the number that really matters, that makes or breaks energy strategy? It’s the EROEI, the energy return on energy invested. Putting it simply, the amount of energy it takes to get the energy out. When Henry Ford first started applying mass production to harness the embedded energy in oil, the EROEI was around 1300 to 1. You pretty much stuck your hand in the ground and the oil poured out. A century later, and it’s a different story. The low hanging fruit has gone. The fossil fuels that are left - the shale gas, the tar sands, the sub-salt oils - they all take a lot of energy and capital to get out, with an EROEI that ranges from just five to thirteen to one. It’s a business, in other words, where the longer-term economics are increasingly marginal.

What about renewables? Is there a tipping point closer than we think?

On the flipside, look at renewables, and what you see is the opposite phenomenon at work. The same laws that drove down the price of computing power have over the last twenty years transformed the economics of renewables. Take cars, the bedrock of the Fordist economy of fossil fuel -driven mass production. The cost of electric batteries is down 35% in the last year alone, bringing us ever closer to the Electric Vehicle crossover point, the tipping point where it’s cheaper up front to buy an electric vehicle than petrol or diesel. This date, set at 2026 back in 2017, is now expected to be 2022. And it’s not just cars. In May, the world’s first autonomous renewable cargo ship delivered 2.5kg of fresh mussels from Maldon port in the UK to Oostende in Belgium. Stena Line plans to install a 1-megawatt battery in one of its car ferries between Sweden and Denmark, scaling up to a 50 megawatt-hour battery that provides 50 nautical miles’ worth of power. And this is today’s technology stack at play. A number of exponential technologies, moving at uneven speed from pilot to scale, have the potential to cause more system wide disruption. On the roads, alongside Sweden’s inductive charging pilots, Hyundai’s new solar car offers a nanotech powered solar-harvesting sunroof. In the skies, Harbour Air, operating 42 short haul routes in British Columbia, is adding an electric plane to its fleet, with a plan to convert the entire fleet, In Germany meanwhile, Sonnen’s distributed energy shows the potential for the game changer of a block chain-enabled energy microgrid. Looking further ahead, Quantum computing capabilities such as D-Wave 2000 qubit processor (100 million times faster, according to a Google analysis, than the world’s fastest conventional supercomputer) promise accelerated materials discovery to increase battery capability. The energy system is at the point of transition. The timings are unpredictable, but the colliding cost curves point in only one direction - the centralised fossil fuel system, propped up by subsidies estimated by the IMF at US$5.3 trillion a year, will yield to a distributed and renewable alternative.

“The future of the apocaplypse”, or how to stay optimistic

For the BBC Radio 4 programme FutureProofing, just to cheer everybody up, we decide it’s time for a programme on The Future of the Apocalypse. We head off to the Ukraine, and, Geiger counters in hand, walk around the carcass of Chernobyl Reactor 4, the reactor that exploded on April 26th, 1986, releasing radiation 400 times more intense than the nuclear explosion over Hiroshima. The 30 km wide Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has been rewilded; it’s now an ecological sanctuary, a haven for brown bears, lynx and wolves. The reactors themselves are buzzing with lab-coated technicians, monitoring contamination levels and carries out a barrage of scientific experiments within the facility. “How do you power it all?” I ask one of scientists. “What is the energy source?” “Chernobyl in fact now has a solar power system”, he replies.

Leo Johnson
Co-Presenter of Radio 4 “FutureProofing

The energy system is at the point of transition.

Leo Johnson

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In her talk, Nell Watson highlighted Blockchain's transformation potential. This covers areas that are not limited to finance or smart contracts, such as the supply chain, energy, IoT or artificial intelligence.

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