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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Think about the whole sustainability picture before trashing energy efficiency in isolation

In recent days and weeks some of the well-known ‘intellects’ of environmentalism, both celebrated and somewhat infamous ones, have immersed themselves in discourse on what’s being billed as the great paradox of energy efficiency.

The nub of what’s also being called ‘the efficiency illusion’ is that making energy use more efficient encourages more use of that energy as the productivity gain achieved leads to overall economic growth.

I don’t want to re-canvass the whole argument, and you can find some key perspectives at sources including:

·        Breakthrough Institute - The Efficiency Illusion by Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, and Jesse Jenkins (Shellenberger and Nordhaus were the authors of a challenging essay ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ in 2004)

·        Bjorn Lomborg – No, you can’t help efforts to reduce global warming

What I immediately see, however, is the muddle-headed thinking you get when to try to solve any great sustainability challenge in isolation.

Energy efficiency skeptics, who in recent times have included such business luminaries as Bill Gates, make simple points by ignoring the interconnected complexities shared by both natural and human systems.

If the unrestricted aim was to stop pollution from the consumption of fossil fuels we’d just do something economically brutal like ban them, or make them so expensive that few could afford them whether efficient or not. Of course, the widely accepted downside is that this would collapse modern society as we know it and be politically impossible.

Further complication comes if you accept that sustainability has to integrate environmental, social and economic factors to achieve overall societal and ecological well-being in tandem.

That includes the imperative to raise billions out of poverty to give them a good standard of living, while dealing with a still-rising global population and a planet that already is exceeding its sustainable carrying capacity, while being faced with diabolical challenges such as climate change, water crises and species extinctions.

The real illusion is not efficiency, but the notion you can make all of that inconvenient truth go away while you contemplate perfect scenario solutions.

This wider sustainability reality forces us to look for more complex, hopefully achievable solutions instead of simple but unachievable ones. That’s where energy efficiency comes in, not in isolation, but together with other factors, most especially renewable energy, distributed generation, smart grids and rising energy prices.

Globally we are not in the privileged position of being able to easily trigger an orderly transition to a low-carbon economy. To avoid chaos we have to simultaneously lift up the massive populations of China and India and other less powerful developing world nations, giving their people a cleaner and less resource-intensive version of the developed world’s unsustainable lifestyles.

Unfortunately, and that’s a mild word for a challenge of the scale the world faces, we have to do more for more people as well as do more with less. More efficient delivery of services that underpin a modern economy, most of which in turn are underpinned by energy consumption, is a vital part of the solution equation.

Energy efficiency is most important as a tool for change, rather than as an end game. If by some miracle of 21st Century re-engineering of human civilization we arrive at a low or zero carbon economy with unlimited, inexpensive, 100% renewable energy generation then presumably we could abandon efficiency altogether and suck up electrons with unrestrained abandon. Imagine the power of our global economy then!

That sounds pretty illusionary to me, at least any time soon, so a safer bet seems to be to use efficiency gains to cut per capita emissions intensity in the current energy economy while accelerating renewable energy and other measures.

In Australia, as an example, a national assault on our relatively inefficient performance on energy efficiency can do much good immediately, especially when coupled with the market reality of rising energy prices and the likelihood of an added price on carbon in the next few years. Benefits I can see include:
·        Averting construction of any more large traditional coal-fired power stations
·        Helping to manage the short to medium term drought in investment in power generation capacity caused by uncertainty over a price on carbon
·        Accelerating the shift to the smart grid, with efficiency gains and demand management assisting in underpinning the business case
·        Creating space on the grid for a rapid rise of electric vehicles
·        Supporting the development of energy-efficient appliances and technologies that can be replicated everywhere
·        Engaging consumers in solutions in a sophisticated version of what has been achieved with recycling – it’s not perfect, but if you want people to demand action on sustainability at the cash register and the ballot box you have to make them part of the equation.

Meanwhile, whatever western environmental intellectuals opine, I bet the Chinese will be paying plenty of attention to efficiency alongside everything else they are doing to meet their great 21st Century energy challenge.

I am keen to know how others see this debate?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh … it’s the Green Goblin Grinch giving Australia the once over for Xmas-New Year

I noticed this tweet from @drgrist a couple of weeks ago, flew by it at the time, then couldn’t get it out of my mind. On Christmas Eve I had to go back and find it. The busy tweep David Roberts, who lives in Seattle and blogs for Grist, said: ‘I have to say, America's "ignore real problems & freak out over fake sh*t" strategy for the 21st century isn't going so well.’

It rings so true for my country of Australia too. Maybe it will resonate for many people in many countries?

Of course, the main issues I have in mind are climate change, our great energy and water challenges, and the deeply unsustainable nature of our high-consumption, high-waste global society. Christmas always brings out the Green Goblin Grinch in me, and this year hasn’t disappointed.

Actually, fighting off rival desperadoes, the hordes of 11th-hour shoppers, for the last free range organic turkey in the supermarket drove it home more powerfully than ever: this Christmas thing is no time or place for an environmentally-aware, increasingly anti-consumption, Anglo-Celtic atheist with a Jewish wife and family.

But that’s the small stuff. The big stuff is the ‘real problems’ Australia faces, many of which it shares with the world. Yet our news can be dominated by fear-mongering about illegal refugees, the recently constant voyeuristic feed of diplomatic gossip courtesy of Wikileaks, bitching about the government paying for a decent national broadband network, and the exposed penises of footballers. Every country, no doubt, has its own versions of similar ‘fake sh*t’ to freak out over.

So, the real problems as Australians get our teeth into the second decade of the 21st Century are:
  1. Australia is running out of liquid transport fuel as domestic oil field production declines and faces highly-onerous import bills over the next few decades, yet is phaffing around while momentum builds globally for electric vehicle (EV) plug-ins.
  2. If Australia does get with the program and embrace electric cars rapidly, especially instead of relying more on land-destroying first generation bio-fuels, it will only add to the urgency to bring our dumb electricity grids up to smart 21st Century standards that can match variable supply with more renewable and distributed generation with flexible demand on the consumer side.
  3. Of course, instead of getting serious about more clean energy on one hand and much greater energy efficiency on the other – which is obviously the way to get to low-carbon at reasonable cost – the national government is trapped in a seemingly quixotic political struggle to deliver a price on carbon (whether cap-and-trade or tax) while the pragmatic option of ramping up energy efficiency first is either ignored or put off due to lack of bureaucratic headspace in the nation’s capital of Canberra.
  4. Meanwhile, the first real country-wide wet season in a decade or more has miraculously arrived at the worst political time imaginable; just as the rural population is going mass feral over the first real plan to turn back a century-plus of over-allocation of water for irrigation in the nation’s main food bowl and river system, the Murray Darling (which happens to be what my wife calls me when she wants me to do something)
  5. Looking ahead, the flattest, driest, hottest continent on the planet (that’s Australia) is also the most urbanized, with most of the population hugging the eastern coastline and most of the residential and commercial buildings and other vital infrastructure vulnerable to sea-level rises of one or two meters – and we just keep on building right in the zone.
  6. Irony of ironies, the stuff we keep on building includes the coal mining, burning for energy and export facilities that are vulnerable to our long-term water supply crises and inevitable sea-level rises this century so we can go on creating the real problems with the climate that accelerates all of the above.
  7. I could go on, but not much need me thinks.
So, my hope for 2011 and the next decade of the 21st Century is that we get our real problems and our fake sh*t in proper perspective, and that we do it fast. But I am a self-confessed Green Goblin Grinch. What do you hope to get for Christmas and especially the New Year?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is this the start of a great Smart Grid consumer awakening in Australia?

It had to happen, didn’t it? Australia finally may be catching up with a growing world realisation – the 'smart grid' ain’t so smart without consumers in the picture, front and centre.

So what’s going on?
Billed as ‘a comprehensive view of the strategies, priorities, and challenges for Smart Grid adoption in Australia’, the new 2010 Australian Smart Grid Study, produced by the business and technology services company Logica, came out today (Monday, December 13th Australian time). It follows the first similar survey in 2009 - just 12 months ago, though it seems a lot longer given the fast pace of smart grid awareness growth that is revealed - and in a central finding it argues that ‘the Smart Grid will not happen without consumer involvement’.
More of the Logica report soon (you can see the whole thing at via @Logica), but first, some context. As a colleague of mine with a senior-level marketing background frequently laments, energy utilities in Australia have tended to regard customer relationship management as having an address to send their quarterly bill to.

Yet the rise of the smart grid means those same traditional utilities will come to be awash with data about how and when energy is being used by their customers, potentially down to the individual appliance level, and will be able to exert real time demand management control over many thousands of premises and millions of electrical circuits.

That is where things are headed. It means the 19th and 20th century model of electricity supply will be transformed in the next decade or so of the 21st century, and there’s a lot more to it than so-called 'Smart Meters'.
The Logica study is based on survey responses from personnel working in many of the major energy generation, distribution and retail companies on Australia. Thus far, it argues, there’s been too much focus on the supply side implications of the smart grid and not enough on the demand side.
It says: ‘There is now an increased awareness of the importance of the customer in the development of the Smart Grid. This represents a significant change from last year, when Smart Grid pilots and thinking tended to be more technologically oriented and focused on the grid. This is a positive development. The whole purpose of the electricity network is to deliver power to commercial and residential consumers, but in the past the distributors left customer engagement to retailers. In too many cases this attitude was initially carried through to the Smart Grid, but the realisation soon hit that in the world of the Smart Grid, the customer is king.’
What the Logica study confirms for Australia is being echoed in many places, in Australia, North America and beyond.

·         Well-known Australian-based communications technology commentator and blogger Paul Budde had this to say on a similar theme last week: ‘Unfortunately, marketing the benefits to the customer has been something of an afterthought in the development of smart meters and smart grids, and the industry is paying dearly for that oversight. There appears to be very little interest among customers in regards to smart grids and smart meters, and this is mainly because the benefits have not been communicated well to consumers. Perhaps if the industry had had a smart grid vision instead of a smart meter vision, they would have been able to explain to the customer that they would be provided with tools that would enable them to manage their energy use better. This would result in saving energy which would ultimately lower the costs – to such an extent that it could even lead to a neutral outcome in relation to the ever-increasing electricity prices.’

·         Another blogger in North America, William Pentland for, wrote a few days ago about ‘Why smart people are suspicious of smart meters’. Pentland, citing a study by the privacy specialist research group the Ponemon Institute, concludes that utilities and industry groups need to expand efforts to educate consumers about the impact of smart meters, which in turn are part of the wider smart grid. ‘The ability to access, analyze and respond to highly granular levels of information from all levels of the electric grid is the source of the major benefits provided or expected to be provided by the smart grid, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Vastly more information may be created, collected and analyzed by the smart meters compared to the data generated by dumb meters and gathered by monthly meter readings. This may explain why the more consumers appreciate the centrality of data to the smart grid, the less they trust smart meters. Consumers who claim to have the best understanding of the smart grid expressed the most concern about the smart grid’s impact on their privacy. Perhaps the most troubling concerns relate to how the collection of personal information will threaten their personal safety and reveal personal details about their lifestyle.’

This all gets pretty important for Australia, and everywhere else of course. A Smart Grid that works for consumers is a politically-palatable proposition that responds to householders and businesses facing rapidly escalating electricity prices. It makes strong sense for the business case of superfast broadband rollouts, including the $43 billion National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia. It explains how we’ll have flexible demand to match variable supply from distributed and renewable energy generation sources including wind and solar.

The Logica study says: ‘The Smart Grid is not some vague prediction for the future. It is happening, here in Australia, right now and has moved forward dramatically since the 2009 study. It is, however, an evolution. It will evolve incrementally, project by project, as technologies like smart meters are adopted, as practices like feed-in tariffs are implemented, as distributors develop smarter infrastructure, and as the electricity network and the communications network become more integrated.
‘In a huge change from last year, every distributor interviewed for this report has now developed a Smart Grid strategy and implementing Smart Grid pilots, many of them quite substantial. The announcement by the Australian Government in June 2010 of the $100 million Smart Grid, Smart City project, to be undertaken by a consortium led by EnergyAustralia and largely based in the NSW city of Newcastle, is one of the most advanced and large-scale Smart Grid implementations in the world. It has been designed as a very large scale pilot, with details of its implementation and the lessons learned to be shared with the entire industry.’

There are now very major questions for official policy, utility business models, the IT sector and many other industry areas, and for consumers themselves in terms of behaviour and decision making, and much more. I believe this is a vital discussion for the future of the electricity system, and therefore the whole economy and society, and its not yet receiving the attention it deserves. What do you think?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Remember the halcyon days when we took electricity for granted?

Our 21st century society is defined by electricity. In Australia, energy has become BBQ conversation fodder and a tabloid media fascination, as power bills soar and the ever-present threat of petrol (gasoline) price rises hangs over us. With electrical and electronic appliances running nearly everything, we are an electric people. Even our cars are set to join this increasingly all-electric future!

Yet the electricity system that feeds our daily habits is hopelessly outdated. Today’s ‘grid’ is a Stalinistic anachronism, based on a polluting and ever-more expensive model of large, centralised, mainly fossil fuel-burning power stations transmitting energy one-way to our homes and enterprises. Under threat from climate change, and in desperate need of big solutions, we’re now on the threshold of a power revolution that can transform the grid into a smart energy version of the Internet. This electricity ‘Intergrid’, as it is being dubbed, will be driven by many millions of consumers instead of a handful of big suppliers. We’ll draw power and we’ll generate power everywhere, using the poles, wires and switches of the grid as connective tissue for a better, cleaner, more secure and resilient way of living.

This is my first post for this blog. I think our electricity systems will be transformed by new thinking and smart technologies faster than many of us currently imagine, and I am working for that to be the case - including as part of an emerging consumer-focused technology development company, Wattwatchers, based in my home city of Sydney. But what do you think? Add your thoughts to build on this discussion of the future of the grid.