3 May 2013
You only have to see the repercussions of the 'Arab Spring' to see that revolutions are inherently unstable. Yet we constantly call for a 'revolution' in sustainability.
Evolution is stable, but slow. Nature itself took over a billion years to come up with a stable, sustainable environment which could support a diversity of life.
The internet 'revolution' of the mid nineties was over 20 years in the making - waiting for a number of key technologies to mature.
Far too many big green ideas seem to involve trying to 'redesign' chunks of the economy - cf the Hydrogen economy. And like the hydrogen economy they tend to fail.
On the other hand, evolution is slow, and in terms of climate and biodiversity in particular we don't have much time to waste.
So how do you accelerate evolution?
In economic terms, anything that boosts demand which produce change much more quickly than any other intervention - see how the costs of solar PV plummeted as Feed-In Tariffs produced a domestic market for a technology which was previously a specialist niche. Marks & Spencer boosted demand for recovered polyester fibre by using low grade material in bulk in cushion filling etc which brought down the price of high grade fibre for clothing.
That's not to say that business and Governments shouldn't intervene in supply chains when there is a key sticking point. But they shouldn't try to 'design' a whole green economy as one thing is sure - they'll get it wrong.
Tags: circular economy, hydrogen economy, low carbon economy, sustainable production and consumption
Posted by Gareth Kane 2 responses
18 April 2012
International energy adivsor Jeremy Rifkin's newish book The Third Industrial Revolution has been getting quite a lot of attention in the press, so I thought I'd better give it a read. Rifkin's central thesis is that the second industrial revolution - the rise of the oil & gas economy which superseded the original, coal-fired industrial revolution - has entered its endgame and a new, distributed energy strategy is required to get the world out of its current economic and environmental fix. While we cling to the oil economy, Rifkin argues, climate change will become dangerous and rising prices will smother any economic recovery.
Rifkin calls his vision for a new approach to energy 'lateral power' - a kind of Energy 2.0 (to coin a phrase) which will adopt the distributed and participative economic model we see in the digital economy. There are five pillars to his vision:
1. A big shift to renewable energy
2. Transforming building stock to micro-power
3. Hydrogen economy and other energy storage systems
4. An 'internet of energy' to allow trading between individuals, companies and countries (ie a smart grid)
5. A shift in transport to electric and fuel cell vehicles
A subtext of the book is that the US should become more like Europe in its approach to the economy (probably more like Germany to be specific), which may raise eyebrows across the pond given the current political discourse. Rifkin clearly enjoys his access to top international politicians such as Angela Merkel. In fact his name dropping can get a tad wearing at times - although it is leavened with his rather blunt assessments of those who 'don't get it' - President Obama, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are on the list - and those who do, some of whom may surprise some readers, such as UK Premier David Cameron. Those on the 'don't get it' list are criticised not so much for a lack of interest, but for their inability to grasp the need for a distributed system - trying to build a renewable energy system on the centralised fossil fuel template just won't work.
This is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It has to be said that there is nothing particularly new in it from a conceptual point of view, in fact much of the 'lateral power' approach was sketched out by the late German MP (and father of the feed in tariff) Herman Scheer in his book The Solar Economy which was published more than a decade ago. But what Rifkin does very successfully is make a convincing case that the time for change has come given the economic and environmental challenges we currently face. And, let's face it, that's the vital message to get across to policy makers across the globe.
Tags: book review, hydrogen economy, politics, renewable energy, smart grids, trans
Posted by Gareth Kane 4 responses
18 October 2010
I'm walking on sunshine today as Newcastle upon Tyne has be rated "most sustainable city in the UK" by Forum for the Future. Not just civic pride in the city I live in, but because, with my councillor hat on, I'm second in command of all things green at the City Council. This is the second year in a row we have topped the rankings; the first city to do it twice.
But my pride is tempered with slight bemusement as we still think we're just getting started. While we are doing a huge amount of exciting stuff, Newcastle doesn't look 'green' per se - we still have gridlock during rush hour, a motorway slashes through the city centre and renewable energy is conspicuous by its absence. Much of this will change as we plan to get a few hundred solar PV panels going up on suitable council houses in the next year or so, and we're desperately trying to unlock the cycling-pit-of-doom which is our city centre.
So, going from the specific to the general, what does sustainable urbanism offer green business and vice versa? As with mobile telecommunications, the population density of a city gives a brilliant test bed for emerging technologies and business services. Electric and hydrogen vehicle infrastructure will appear in city centres long before suburbia and rural. District heating systems depend on large 'anchor tenants' to make the system economically viable. Specialist green retail is also more likely to survive in a big city. The main downside is the density of buildings makes renewable energy difficult.Retrofitting urban buildings is going to be very big business very soon.
And what can businesses offer cities as part of their Corporate Civic Responsibility (to coin a phrase)? Locating in the city centre will help preserve the vitality of the urban core - and improve the quality of life of employees. Conversely, telecommuting will help resurrect local services in residential areas. While this might sound like a contradictory message, the two can be synergistic - smaller central office with hot-desking and employees working from home. Proper green travel planning will cut private car journeys by encouraging public transport, cycling and walking schemes. Even wildlife areas can be built into the city centre - there are bee hives on the roof of Fenwick's department store on Newcastle's Northumberland Street (don't get me started on bee facts).
By chance I'm off to Stockholm tomorrow to the European Green Capitals conference - the host city having won the European accolade. Blogging and tweeting will depend on my access to t'internet, but I hope to share what I learn.
Tags: electric vehicles, forum for the future, green building, hydrogen economy, teleworking, transport
Posted by Gareth Kane no responses
4 September 2009
I've been doing some research into the current stage of the hydrogen economy for Innovation Scout. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, hydrogen was the fuel of future - and on Teesside, where I was working in that period, it was held up as the saviour of the chemical industry. In fact, any project that might get in the way of the march of hydrogen was simply brushed aside (including one of mine, but I'm not bitter. Well, not much).
But then what? Some major motor manufacturers brought forward concept cars and there were a number of fuel cell systems installed in buildings and road signs. But not much more has progressed as technical and economic issues have hindered the commercialisation of the technology. President Obama's Energy Secretary Steven Chu pulled the plug on hydrogen research and everybody seems to be focussed on the electric vehicle. Honda alone seems to have stuck with the hydrogen model with its FCX Clarity model (lauded by the Top Gear petrolheads) and there the open-source Riversimple hydrogen car was launched this summer. The latter will be leased in cities where the hydrogen infrastructure is provided by industrial gas giant BOC.
So there may be life in hydrogen yet, the only question is, with huge distribution networks required for both, can it compete with the upsurge in interest in electric vehicles? Looks like a classic battle along the lines of Betamax/VHS and, like that videotape war, it will probably won on entrepreneurial ability rather than technical prowess.
BTW, if you are interested in the current state of affairs in the electric car industry, check out this interesting BBC Radio 4 programme which includes an interview with Shai Agassi who is launching a distributed network of charging points and automatic battery exchanges.
Tags: cars, electric vehicles, hydrogen economy
Posted by Gareth Kane no responses
1 June 2009
There is a lovely story (probably apocryphal*) of a student taking a design proposal to the head of Cambridge University Engineering Department. The Prof looked at the plans and said
"Nice idea, Whittle, but it will never work."
The student was of course Sir Frank Whittle and the design was for the jet engine.
Whether or not exchange really happened, there is a whole cadre of such eminent thinkers, either retired or in the twilight of their careers, who regularly try to throw similar sticks into the spokes of green/low carbon technology. Letters regularly appear in the press from these chaps, typically saying:
"Before everyone rushes to embrace wind power/the hydrogen economy/electric vehicles/biomass (delete as appropriate), a few simple sums show that to replace all electricity/gasoline vehicles/domestic heating systems would require [something impossible/very expensive]. This headlong rush to do [X] is foolhardy if not downright dangerous".
Those simple sums usually assume that the technology involved is intended to replace its conventional equivalent entirely, without any change to usage patterns, without any evolution in the technology concerned and at current prices. They ignore the immutable laws of technological development - as technologies mature their costs plummet, efficiencies improve, synergies emerge and user behaviour changes to suit. But you have to start at the beginning of that cycle, you can't just parachute into the maturity phase.
The annoying thing for me is that these would-be Cassandras know this better than anyone. I don't know if they're just stuck in their ways, need to feel important and relevant, or whether they just resent the world passing them by. But given all their knowledge and experience, the world would be a better place if they would open their minds and become part of the solution, not part of the problem.
* The Cambridge angle to the story doesn't seem to match up with Whittle's biog, but he did apparently meet such resistance in the RAF.
Tags: biomass, hydrogen economy, technology, wind turbines
Posted by Gareth Kane no responses
27 May 2009
While the last year has seen Barack Obama hogging the limelight of US politics, his new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, has been emerging as a refreshingly honest and practical voice to combat climate change. Unlike most politicos in his position, Chu is more concerned with results than process.
His calls for flat roofs to be painted white (to reflect more solar energy back into space without contributing to climate change), his embracing of ideas such as 'negawatts' - energy you don't use, and his energetic participation in bike-to-work day have really endeared him to me, but green groups are not so sure. He has been attacked for changing his mind on permitting coal fired powerstations and has slashed funding for the hydrogen economy. His focus instead has been on energy efficiency and biofuels.
But his biggest challenge will be to win over his fellow US politicians in Congress - resistance to carbon reductions is fierce and entrenched, with Rep Joe Barton declaring recently "Carbon dioxide is natural - you can't regulate God". Quite.
Good luck to him!
Tags: climate change, energy efficiency, hydrogen economy, Steven Chu
Posted by Gareth Kane no responses
2 November 2008
I won't give away the plot, but a key, if clunky, exchange between two baddies towards the end of the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, goes:
Baddie #1: What's that sound?
Baddie #2: Oh, it must be the fuel cells - this whole place runs on them.
Baddie #1: Sounds unstable!
And guess what, ten minutes later the 'whole place' goes up as the 'unstable fuel cells' blow, creating fireballs left, right and centre. This is the technology that has been successfully and safely installed in schools and other safety critical applications and could form a key part of a sustainable future. The fuel cell industry will not be terribly pleased with how they have been portrayed. And quite rightly.
Oh, if you're wondering, the film's pretty good, but not as good as Casino Royale.
Tags: fuel cells, hydrogen economy, james bond, quantum of solace
Posted by Gareth Kane one response