Monday, May 19, 2008

The history - and future - of energy efficiency

A problem that is raised over and over again in the energy literature is the poor conversion ratio of green energy sources. Hydrogen, for example, may lose as much as 75% of its energy value between raw material and use as energy. Most projections assume that we never will do very much better than current efficiency levels.

I have no idea why this is. Perhaps there is a fundamental issue I am not aware of, but looking back at the history of, say, the steam engine, the improvements inefficiency are astonishing. I have read that Newcomen’s engine converted less than 1% of the available energy, but James Watt and Matthew Boulton’s improvement were only the first of many massive improvements up to and including the modern steam turbine.

Is EROEI really significant?

A question about EROEI. It has been noted that solar PV systems often show an ‘energy returned on energy invested’ (EROEI) ratio of about one. But is a figure of 1 or less actually a problem? As with so many economic and technological issues, the key question is not so much about absolute amounts or ratios as the conversion of a low-value resource into a high-value asset. That's why it makes any sense at all to invest 1 calorie of oil to create 1 calorie of food – because you can’t eat oil, but you can eat food. If the simple calorific value were significant, we would never have made an entire industry of converting oil into food.

Likewise for many other technologies – we are surrounded by energy, but not all of it in forms that are usable to us, given everything from our current metabolisms to our current economic systems. But so what? An EROEI of less than one would make perfectly good sense if the energy invested were derived from a clean, widely accessible source and the energy returned were in a usable form that did not perpetuate other destructive forms of activity.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Strategic issues for environmental action

It has often been argued that an important function of early adopters of environmental measures is to demonstrate the plausibility and effectiveness of the measures they advocate. Although they cannot solve global problems of carbon emission, peak oil, pollution, systems disintegration, and so on, by themselves, they can demonstrate to the rest of the population that it is certainly possible to take action.

As far as it goes this is correct. These are crucial lessons – that we are not helpless, and even more that we are not alone. However, I start to become concerned when I think about previous examples. Take the anti-apartheid movement – an immensely successful popular political movement that brought down an oppressive regime by taking the initiative out of the hands of governments and other more conventional (and certainly more ‘respectable’) agents.

But are such cases really comparable? I would suggest that are many ways in which the environmental issue is going to be much tougher nut to crack:

  1. Solving the environmental problem demands major sacrifices on the part of those who want change to happen. We are not talking about boycotting South African fruit, and so on. We are talking about reducing our individual carbon footprints by perhaps 90% in a timescale where this is quite impracticable without serious self-denial.
  2. The problem cannot be solved unless everyone is involved. A vigorous activist core and a well-meaning but ultimately passive group of sympathisers will not even touch this problem. Even anti-apartheid or the anti-Nazi movements never recruited more than a modest, if also very vocal, minority. Climate change and peak oil cannot be addressed unless literally everyone takes part.
  3. It is impossible to isolate this problem to a single aspect of society, a single geographical location, or a single ‘bad guy’. We don’t all just have to give up, say, alcohol or even cars. That would be hard but at least it is conceivable, given that there already exist widely used and proven alternatives such public transport. But to reduce literally everyone’s carbon footprint to a fraction of its current level? There are simply so many basics in our current lifestyles we will be forced to do not more cleanly or by less damaging alternatives or even less, but not at all.
  4. Finally, this is systematic problem that touches the very roots of our economic system. It not only attacks the (short- and medium-term) interests of global capital and national governments but also the fundamentals of the entire economic system – the very way we live our lives.
I am not pessimistic, but I think we need a far more powerful model and organisation to make significant progress – significant, that is, not to the rhetoric of getting this moving but of actually solving the problem.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Peak oil vs peak energy

One issue I am having real difficulty with is in distinguishing between peak oil and peak energy. Peak oil is coming - it may already be here. But as there is no such thing as peak energy, what are the real implications of peak oil itself? Not necessarily an energy-poor society, if peak energy is nowhere in sight. So what then?

Specific issues I would like answers to:

  1. How much does the transition to a post-fossil fuel energy regime rely on making the most of peak oil - such that, the oil fails too soon, we won't make it?
  2. Energy is a physical issue, but fossil fuels also have a major chemical role in our economy - in plastics, in fertilisers, and so on. How can this be dealt with?
  3. Biggest of all by far, it has been argued that a specifically capitalist economy relies on fossil fuels - its extremely rapid and highly focused cycles rely on such a mobile, flexible and instantaneous form of energy. To what extent is this true? And if it is true, what are the political implications of this fact, which vastly exceeds the planning of any current political system?

So why don't corporations use markets themselves?

Like most unrepentant lefties, I get tired of hearing people talk about markets as though they we some kind of panacea rather than the combination of adolescent abstraction and crooked game they obviously are to anyone who bothers to work out how they really operate.

But just to cut through the usual theological speculation (which would, I am quite sure, have shocked Adam Smith, who seems to have been generous, humane and sophisticated moral philosopher who distrusted business deeply), would someone please point me at, say, three major corporations that organise their own internal operations as a market?

Can't think of even one? Me neither.

But worst of all, they won't solve our current environmental or energy problems. Why not? Because of this.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Accelerating the transition to transition

The time it currently takes to motivate a local community to set up an effective Transition Town group is, by conventional reckoning, a year and more. This is corroborated, I think, not only by the Transition movement’s own practical experience but also by the experience of organisational change experts.

I have recently managed a very small ‘transition’ of sorts in a well-known British company. It was only a relatively small change, that, in purely technical terms, it should have taken only about three months, even allowing for building absolutely everything from scratch. We were also fortunate in that practically all the participants understood and accepted (and in many cases actively demanded). Yet it still took more than a year to complete.

Why so long? It’s not hard to understand. Here are some factors that slowed us down.

  1. There were far too few people involved. Basically it was me managing it full-time and a few part—timers doing the local changes.
  2. Everyone apart from me had a day-job to do, so even when they positively wanted to join in, it was hard.
  3. The important always gives place to the urgent. So every time I wanted to do something quickly, there were always a hundred other, more urgent things the people I needed to take action had to do.
  4. Misalignment is another potentially fatal source of disruption. There is no shortage of other initiatives that the well motivated are also involved in. Right in the middle of my own change programme, the HR department kicked off an ‘excellence programme’, aimed at creating a qualitative leap in the company’s level of performance. I felt that this was a bit odd, given that we could not do ‘competent’ yet, but the real difficulty was that several of the key participants in my own scheme were effectively put on hold while their ‘excellence profiles’ were agreed.
  5. Internal friction was another problem. Those who were actively involved were often at loggerheads about exactly what needed doing and exactly how it should be done. More delays, and in some cases a lot of muttering and unspoken resentment.
  6. Resentment. Some participants ( and others who effectively refused to participate, even though the programme aimed to achieve goals they shared) resented the fact that they were not in charge.
  7. Individual parts of the change programme were not well thought through, I am ashamed to say. I took too much understanding and agreement for granted. Given the Transition Network's own 7 Buts (which will resonate with every change manager in the country), there is no shortage of things of resistance points, of that need thinking through or that, conversely, can disrupt, if not sink, even a popular initiative.
  8. Few of the individuals involved had any real experience of change management. Or rather, they had all been ‘changed’ by previous initiatives, often to the point of radical disillusion about the effectiveness of change itself. But they have few of the skills and knowledge needed to design, build and implement the change themselves. Again, given that the Transition process is unlikely to succeed unless it is taken up by a very large proportion of the population, this is even more of a problem for Transition than for the biggest corporate organisation.

Yet in other respects, I was very lucky. I did not have to face dissent from organised groups or the powers that be. The nature of the change was well defined in ways that had pretty much universal consent in advance. And I had done this many times before, and managed to avoid many of the standard elephant traps change programmes often fall into.

And so on. Hence the slow pace of change.

Yet this timescale can probably be cut very considerably. Each of the slowing factors mentioned above can be anticipated, prepared for and actively managed. The question is not whether such change is possible, but only how well it can be done.

Leverage, not numbers

Last night I attended the Guildford Environmental Forum (GEF), where Ben Brangwyn, one of the leading lights of the Transition Town movement and a founder the Transition Network. He talked and we asked questions for more than 2½ hours – which, bearing in mind that he had had a lousy journey from the far end of the country that day, was pretty impressive.

Late in the conversation, he discussed the ‘7 Buts’ – the reasons people give for not doing anything about the environment. No. 4 is ‘But no one in this town cares about the environment anyway’. In response to this, Ben told us about an old man who told him that, before the Second World War, almost no one had worried about what was coming. But 5% of the population could see the signs and took steps to prepare. So when war actually came, a good deal was ready. Britain’s legendary ‘turning on a sixpence’ (or the USA ‘turning on a dime’) depended heavily on the readiness created by a few.

I think this is a good metaphor for what the Transition Network should be doing. As well as actually making changes – proving the truth of the transition model by practical means – we should also be preparing to accelerate this process when suddenly not only a lot more people but also governments at every level need to get things done. As well as an ‘Energy Descent Action Plan’ (EDAP) each community should start to build a ‘Transition Mobilisation Plan’. And just as, like the EDAP, no one can tell a local community how to carry out their own transition, but they can certainly be provided with a proven toolkit for a very wide range of tasks, including plenty of built-in options and adaptability.

So part of the role of the Transition Network should, I think, be to create the readiness for when action is urgently needed and many more people are motivated to take action.