Energy Storage and Civilization

This is an early announcement for a forthcoming book co-authored with Graham Palmer, Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach. We completed the manuscript last Thursday, submitted it to the publisher, Springer, the same day, and they’ve already got a web page up here. Pretty impressive turnaround, and has me reflecting on the benefits of working with a large publisher versus self-publishing (as was the case for Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future). There’s definitely something to be said for being able to focus on the content, while leaving production, promotion and distribution to the experts.

So what is Energy Storage and Civilization all about? Here’s the blurb that Springer has put together:

Fossil fuels comprise the accumulation of prehistoric biomass that was energised by sunlight, and formed by earth system dynamics. Fossil fuels can be conceptualized as stored energy stocks that can be readily converted to power flows, on demand. A transition from a reliance on stored energy stocks, to renewable energy flows, will require a replication of energy storage by technological devices and energy conversion methods. Most analyses of energy storage focus solely on the economic-technical properties of storage within incumbent energy systems. This book broadens the scope of the study of storage by placing it within a broader, historical, biophysical framework. The role and value of storage is examined from first principles, and framed within the contemporary context of electrical grids and markets. The energy-economic cost of electrical storage may be critical to the efficacy of high penetration renewable scenarios. Understanding the costs and benefits of storage is needed for a proper assessment of storage in energy transition studies. This book provides a starting point for engineers, scientists and energy analysts for exploring the role of storage in energy transition studies, and for gaining an appreciation of the biophysical constraints of storage.

The underlying thesis bears drawing out a bit further though. With the increasing penetration of variable renewable generation (wind and solar PV) in many electricity grids around the world, issues associated with intermittency of supply are shifting from abstract theoretical matters to very concrete practical ones. The use of large batteries to buffer supply variability is gaining momentum and gathering a lot of attention now — perhaps most famously with Elon Musk’s lithium-ion battery in South Australia. Pumped hydro and hydrogen energy storage are similarly hot topics in the energy transition realm. In light of this recent emergence into public consciousness of energy storage as such an important piece of the puzzle for decarbonising electricity supply, observers might be excused for thinking this is an entirely new feature of the energy landscape. Our take on this is very different. In fact, we see energy storage as very tightly coupled with the development of human civilisations.

According to the thesis that we propose in the book, the forms of human social organisation that are typically grouped under this overarching term share, as a common enabler, the storage of their primary energy sources on an unprecedentedly large scale. Energy storage is, in this view, essential to the exercise of power (both political and physical) over large territories — it allows the distribution and control of power in time and space. Following from this historical perspective, we posit that future human social forms recognisable in today’s terms — based on their nature, scope and scale — as ‘civilisations’, will similarly be dependent upon suitable energy storage technologies and media. This affords the investigation and analysis of energy storage a status that we think is quite a bit more interesting than the typical techno-economic treatment implies (though we do acknowledge that Elon Musk and Tesla have also done their bit to turn boring old batteries into something much more sexy :-)).

The book also explores questions related to the ways that we think about, and following from this, can ‘know about’, energy-society futures. This makes Energy Storage and Civilization an important link in the broader project to which my work relates, namely the investigation of energy-society futures from an explicitly meta-epistemic stance — that is, a stance that takes seriously and priorities the processes by which humans make sense and meaning of their worlds, as foundational for any other inquiry (at least to the extent that such inquiry is worth bothering with in the first place).

So this latest project links in with Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future’s call for ‘knowledge humility’ in seeking to understand the plausible futures facing humanity. But it also develops implicit themes in two relatively recent articles on which I was a co-author with these same collaborators:

  1. Palmer, G., & Floyd, J. (2017). An Exploration of Divergence in EPBT and EROI for Solar Photovoltaics. BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, 2(4), 15. doi:; and
  2. Alexander, S., Rutherford, J., & Floyd, J. (2018). A Critique of the Australian National Outlook Decoupling Strategy: A ‘Limits to Growth’ Perspective. Ecological Economics, 145, 10-17. doi:

Versions of each article are available here: Or, resourceful readers will likely know already that access to human knowledge (at least, in the printed form) currently knows no limits (or so I’m told).

The broad inquiry for which Energy Storage and Civilization is the latest contribution continues. I’ll continue to post updates as new work emerges.



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