Last week I attended the Eco-city World Summit in Melbourne. On Friday, permaculture co-originator David Holmgren presented an ‘alternative keynote’ based on his forthcoming book RetroSuburbia. The session was arranged and chaired by Sam Alexander, Research Fellow in Sustainable Economy and Consumption with Summit co-organisers Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. Sam invited me to join award winning landscape architect and urban designer Kate Dundas in responding briefly to David’s presentation. My brief was to drill down a little further into the energy context and implications for RetroSuburbia. Continue reading
Back at the start of May I was invited to speak at a business networking event run by Moral Fairground on the theme ‘The Unseen Cost of Travel’, alongside Intrepid Travel co-founder Geoff Manchester and Janine Hendry of Reho Travel. The invitation came about as a result of my posts here last year on the climate impacts of air travel. My brief was to cover the implications of carbon offsetting.
Here’s what I had to say, under the rough title ‘Carbon offsets or carbon penances? What a finite emission budget means for air travel and tourism futures.’
For a period pretty much identical to my own lifetime, travel for most rich-world citizens has effectively been synonymous with flying. In broader historical terms that’s a very small blip, and I’ll come back to that at the end in thinking about how those of us who take climate change seriously might deal with the dilemma that commercial aviation presents. Continue reading
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
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.
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
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
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.
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