Are we on the cusp of Energy 2.0?
The Facebook/Twitter/Flickr/YouTube/Wordpress revolution of the last 5-7 years has famously been dubbed Web 2.0. Web 1.0 was like a huge electronic catalogue of information to be searched and read. This content was generated by a relatively small number of producers and consumed by a huge number of surfers.
The Web 2.0 revolution lead users to generate the content, democratising the process. The emerging big players stood back from the frontline, instead providing the framework within which that content was stored, catalogues and distributed – and made handsome rewards doing so.
There is a clear analogy here with energy. In traditional energy systems, let’s call it Energy 1.0, a small number of producers keep a tight control on the flow of primary energy sources (gas, oil, coal) and distribute it to a large number of consumers. The rise of domestic microgeneration, farm based renewables and the adoption of renewable technologies by non-energy industries has started to wrestle the ‘ownership’ of energy from the few and handing it to the many. You could call it Energy 2.0.
Digging a little deeper into the analogy, the people who are making most money out of Web 2.0 are the providers of the platforms for content, not the content generators. If Energy 2.0 follows the same route, the big money will be made by those providing the storage, distribution and co-ordination of that energy – ie the semi-mythical Smart Grid. So who will become the big player, the YouVolt or the Wattr of Energy 2.0?
And the big fossil fuel industry? They could soon end up like the newspapers of today – declining circulation, no sustainable income streams in the new set up and abandoned by their political friends. The fossilised fuel industry.
Where the analogy falls down, of course, is in reliability of supply. If Twitter or Facebook went down for a few minutes, all you’d end up with is a couple of million smartphone users with itchy fingers. If the energy system went down, everything stops. The democratic and redundant nature of the internet allows the new providers to come and go, but it still took decades for the system to mature enough for Web 2.0. But then again, the smart grid could emulate the resilience of the internet, passing energy along random routes from generator to storage to consumer.
But with renewables hitting a new record of peaking at 50% of Germany’s electricity consumption one day last month, and record investment in renewables (2011 saw 6 times as much investment as 2004), and the UK Government keen to break up the stranglehold of “the big six” electricity, we could be on the brink of something big.