Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy

Back in June, Nafeez Ahmed published an article, 3 ways Clean Energy will make Big Oil extinct in 12 to 32 Years — without subsidies, that provoked critical feedback from a reader. True to his stated mission to redesign investigative journalism for the 21st century based on ‘generative dialogue’, Nafeez responded with an offer to run a symposium via his online publication ‘Insurge Intelligence, to explore a wider spectrum of perspectives on his article’s theme. The symposium, Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy, responds to the framing question ‘how do we transition away from fossil fuels toward societies that are both environmentally sound and prosperous, allowing their members to live fulfilling, meaningful lives?’ So far it has featured eight articles, from Mark Disendorf, Graham Palmer, Saral Sarkar, Ted Trainer, Jonathan Rutherford, Felix Fitzroy and me.

My contribution, which also ran as it’s feature article, is reproduced in full below, including Nafeez’s editorial intro.

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Retrofitting Suburbia for Energy Descent Futures

Last week I attended the Eco-city World Summit in Melbourne.[1] 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

Navigating the energy transition landscape: summary findings from a dynamic systems view

I’ve been asked a few times now to provide an account of the energy transition modelling featured on Beyond this Brief Anomaly over the past year or so, that goes beyond the very brief article for The Conversation in May, but that is more accessible than the detailed documentation provided in earlier posts here, here and here. The article presented here is intended to fill that gap. It’s based on the presentation I gave in July at a University of Melbourne Carlton Connect Initiative event on energy transitions, discussed in the introduction to this earlier post. The presentation abstract will serve for orientation:

Energy transition discourse in both the public and academic spheres can be characterised by strong and often fixed views about the prospects for particular pathways. Given the unprecedented scale and complexity of the transition task facing humanity, greater circumspection may help ensure collective efforts are effective. While significant attention has been given to the question of how to satisfy future energy demand with renewable sources, dynamic effects during the transition period have received far less attention. Net energy considerations have particular relevance here. Exploratory modelling indicates that such considerations are relevant for more comprehensive feasibility assessment of renewable energy transition pathways. Moreover, this suggests there may be value in asking broader questions about how to ensure energy transition learning and praxis is sufficiently ‘fit for purpose’. 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.

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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

A comprehensive view of system performance

The perennial human interest in keeping a check on the costs of doing what we do is hardly surprising. In fact, the significance of this as an organising principle extends well beyond our own species: it plays an important role in the processes of biological evolution, where the viability of any organism depends on maintaining a sufficient degree of what we might call “energetic leeway” to weather the range of environmental variation encountered. In the human realm, it manifests in a perhaps more mundane way in the disinclination that people tend to have for working harder than necessary to do what they want to do—if there’s an easier way of satisfying our needs and desires, we tend on the whole to be good at finding it. Continue reading

Driving in circles: road building and causal thinking

Way back in September last year, I concluded the post prior to Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s rather longer than expected hiatus by using a very simple example to illustrate the distinction between the way that causality is conventionally understood, and how it tends to be appreciated within systemic thinking. I’ll now round out that discussion by extending the ideas explored there to a real-world “problematical situation”, in order to show how our understanding of causality can have very practical implications for the ways that we organise things in the social sphere. Continue reading