How do we transition to a renewable society?

Earlier this year, The Rescope Project launched with a forum series titled Regenerating Society, run in conjunction with the annual Sustainable Living Festival. The final forum, ‘Renewable Energy and Beyond’, focused on what transition to renewably powered societies asks of us and featured Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Richard, speaking via skype, joined Rescope Project host Anthony James, Melbourne-based energy and climate researcher Andrea Bunting, and myself. The event was introduced by Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (see the note at the end of this post for news on The Rescope Project’s participation in the 2017 Ecocity World Summit, co-hosted by MSSI).

To kick things off, each speaker responded briefly to the framing question ‘How do we transition to a renewable society?’. Anthony then opened the floor for a wider conversation with the audience. Video of the full forum is available here. A slightly edited version of my own primer follows. Continue reading

The City as Commons

A broadly held view in the modern world is that economic relations are best governed by some mix of state regulation, and market-mediated exchange of privately owned resources. This tends to reflect a deeper assumption: ‘ordinary citizens’ are not well placed to collectively organise the managing of resources in which they have shared interests – left to their own devices, narrow self-interest will eventually lead to over-exploitation and deterioration of the resource. The dominance of states and markets in arranging economic life is, however, a relatively recent development in public policy thinking. And it was in the wake of Garret Hardin’s (famous or infamous depending on who you ask)1968 essay ‘The tragedy of the commons’ that the idea gained widespread popular appeal in liberal democracies.[1]

Today though, while the state-private duopoly continues as the dominant influence in economic governance, claims for its exclusive empirical validity or moral superiority no longer remain tenable. This is thanks in large part to the work of political economist Elenor Ostrom, co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for her work demonstrating that successful commons remain alive and well around the world today. There are many situations where resources held and managed in common by those relying on them to meet their needs are simply not subject to the fate ascribed by Hardin. Such management may even improve the state of a commons. Continue reading

A deeper dive on PV ‘EROI’

In this post I give a quick overview of recent goings on in the world of Beyond this Brief Anomaly, and then take a far more detailed look at the basis for the input values relating to PV EROI in the Insight Maker net energy return model: Prieto & Hall’s field study of utility-scale photovoltaic electricity generation for Spain over the period 2009-2011.[2] Having spent quite a bit of time examining this source previously and in the run up to writing this post, I anticipated that the post would simply be a fairly dry technical document. For most folks, this is indeed an apt description. But for that small community aware of the controversies surrounding Prieto & Hall’s book, there’s a surprise in store.  If you’re such a reader (and especially if you followed Ugo Bardi’s blog posts related to this a little while back here and here), then there’s a dramatic twist ahead. Yesterday in writing this post, closer scrutiny of Prieto & Hall’s study alongside the meta-study of PV EROI by Bhandari et al. (that I first learned about from those posts at Cassandra’s Legacy–thank you Ugo) brought to light something quite unexpected. But no spoilers — you’ll need to read on for the details.

And if anyone thinks I’m off the mark with this ‘discovery’, please weigh in to let me and other readers know. I’m really scratching my head over why this hasn’t come to light previously–it seems rather obvious in hindsight. Continue reading

What is the potential for renewable energy?

In the most recent posts last year, I looked in some detail at what the energy costs of energy supply imply for global-scale transition from fossil fuels to (mostly) renewable energy (RE) sources. The modelling presented there highlighted the importance of taking a dynamic view of transition – rather than just looking at the start and end states. If we’re serious about identifying feasible transition pathways, this type of approach has an important role to play. It’s reassuring to see that more significant effort is starting to be made in this area.

One reason this has been slow to gain traction is the idea that renewable energy sources are so abundant as to be without practical limits. It’s a popular and compelling story, but unfortunately, also one that obscures as much as it reveals. Here, I’ll explain why, and set out the detailed case for why we are much better served by thinking in terms of the practically realisable potential for renewable energy, rather than the raw physical flows. At the heart of this is a basic insight, expressed in a simple aphorism: ‘each joule of energy is not equal’. Continue reading

The energy costs of energy transition: model refinements and further learning

In this post I’ll discuss further developments relating to the energy transition modelling exercise covered in detail in the previous two posts (here and here). Consistent with Beyond this Brief Anomaly‘s inquiry ethos, I view the exercise as effectively open-ended. The findings at any point in time can be considered provisional and subject to refinement or revision as learning unfolds, as new ways for making sense of the modeled situation come to light, and as the ways in which the situation itself is understood change. This particular modelling effort should not be treated as the “last word” on the subject. Indeed, the best outcome from the work would be an increased public concern for the dynamics of energy transition — leading to new initiatives that explore the implications independently, going beyond what is possible with this relatively modest foray.

Nonetheless, the findings to date from this work demand close consideration from anyone seriously committed to renewable energy transition. The essential insight is this: in the rapid build-out required for a major transition in primary energy sources, effective aggregate energy return on investment (EROI) for a replacement source’s total stock of generators is lower than for an individual generator considered in isolation. The overall EROI ramps up from zero at the commencement of the transition, only reaching the nominal value for an individual generator over its full life-cycle when the transition is effectively complete i.e. when the generator stock reaches a steady state. All of the other key findings flow from this fundamental feature of any rapid transition in primary energy source. If a replacement energy source has lower nominal EROI than incumbent sources, then this becomes a critically important feasibility consideration.

The specific model developments introduced here are summarised as follows (I’ll discuss each in more detail below):

  1. The conversion of power outputs to energy service outputs in the form of heat and work for each supply source has been thoroughly overhauled, resulting in a far more refined implementation of this feature of the model.
  2. Conversion of self-power demand to emplacement and operating & maintenance (O&M) energy service demand in the form of heat and work has also been modified for each supply source.
  3. The maximum autonomy period that determines the amount of energy storage for wind and PV electricity can now be increased gradually as the intermittent supply penetration increases as a proportion of total electricity supply.
  4. For the default parameter set (now called the “reference scenario”, previously “standard run”), the maximum autonomy periods for wind and PV supply are arbitrarily reduced to 48 and 72 hours respectively, simply for the sake of heading off any knee-jerk response along the lines that “the amount of storage assumed to be necessary is unrealistic, therefore the entire model is suspect”.
  5. Detailed calculation is now included for levelised capital cost and O&M cost  for wind and PV supply plant, and levelised capital cost for batteries (making the discussion of this in the previous post now redundant).

The updated version of the model to which this post relates is available here.

The full parameter set for the updated model’s “reference scenario” (equivalent to the “standard run” in previous posts) is available as a PDF here. Continue reading

An integrated view of energy transition: what can we learn?

In this post I take a detailed look at the simulation results for the energy transition model introduced in the previous post, when it is run with the default parameter values—what I referred to last time as the “standard run”.

Before getting started though, this is a good place to reiterate the motivation for undertaking this work. I’m prompted here by a post on John Quiggin’s blog that he provided a link to as a comment on the previous post. The post is a 300 word dismissal of the relevance of energy return on investment in assessing PV electricity supply performance.  It was—I assume inadvertently—a timely demonstration of the central point I was making: to have a productive conversation about these issues, we need to take a comprehensive, integrated view. But looking beyond the technical superficiality of John’s argument, he also made the misleading inference that a concern with the energetics of energy transition is the exclusive preserve of “renewable energy critics”.

With this in mind, I’ll state my position as clearly as I can here: an interest in critically assessing the capacity for renewable energy systems to directly substitute for incumbent energy systems should not be conflated with “being opposed to renewable energy”. I myself am a long-time proponent for and supporter of a transition to renewably-powered societies. Having taken the time to be fairly broadly and deeply informed in this area, it is apparent that there are significant uncertainties relating to the forms that such societies might take, especially given the tight coupling between current globally-dominant societal forms, and the characteristics of their primary energy sources. It’s apparent to me that humanity stands a better chance of developing future societies supportive of high life quality if these uncertainties are taken seriously, rather than being discounted or ignored. The question that most interests me here is:

What forms might future renewably-powered societies take, if they are to enable humans and other life forms to live well together?

And following from this, how might we best pursue the process of transition towards such future societies?

Developing a more integrated view of the relationship between societal forms and their enabling energy systems would seem to be of benefit here. I do work in this area primarily because a widespread interest in this is not apparent amongst the communities that currently dominate renewable energy transition discourse and practice. Furthermore, my own inquiry suggests that failing to take a more integrated approach as early as possible could have increasingly adverse consequences as such a transition proceeds.

And with that, it’s back to the primary task of considering what our energy transition model might have to tell us about such matters.

Continue reading

Energy transition, renewables and batteries: a systems view

In the concluding section of the report made available here last month, I hinted at a view on the role of batteries in global energy supply that, in the wake of the announcement from Tesla CEO Elon Musk on 30 April this year, may seem rather at odds with prevailing popular sentiment. I suggested there that, while significant numbers of electricity consumers will likely be motivated to go “off grid” as battery costs reduce, this will entail feedback effects with implications that can reasonably be expected to make for a change trajectory far less linear and predictable than many commentators envisage. Such a view is, of course, entirely consistent with the systemic approach to thinking about energy transitions for which Beyond this Brief Anomaly advocates.

In this post, I introduce the energy transition model I’ve been developing over the past few months, to help make better sense of the physical economic implications of a global energy shift in which wind and PV generation with battery buffering dominate electricity supply. Continue reading