Harnessing emerging sustainable technologies including solar and wind energy transmitted through hi-voltage undersea cabling could mean we end up with surplus energy, not power outages. Michael Baxter makes some exciting predictions
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” or so it is often said. Robert A. Heinlein said it and so did the economist Milton Friedman. But maybe in the fight against climate change, there is. Emerging sustainable technologies not only offer the prospect of finally defeating climate change, but they could also create cheaper energy too.
As Matthew Hampshire, author of Climate Change and the Road to Net Zero, told me, electrifying is actually more efficient. An electric vehicle uses one third of the energy a traditional internal combustion engine uses, for example. As a result, he says, “you will be using half the energy in a net-zero system than in the equivalent fossil fuel system”.
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So that’s the first example of a free lunch. By shifting to electricity, we save energy — and in the process, reduce C02 emissions.
Of course, it helps if the electricity we use is generated from a clean source — which is where renewables enter the story.
To fully understand why the renewables story is so promising and indeed helps supports the idea of a free lunch, we can rewind the clock to 1776. In that year, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published. And Smith famously extolled the advantages of specialisation with the example of a pin factory. “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on…” says Smith. By specialising in this way, he said, ten men “could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day”. But if they had laboured individually, one person naming a pin on their own “they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day”.
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What has this got to do with emerging sustainable technologies? The answer is that the potential to specialise increases the potential to cut costs. If the units that make up a technology are small and can be made at scale, the potential to reduce costs rapidly is several orders of magnitude greater. This is why renewable energies have been subject to a so-called learning rate. Their cost has fallen exponentially over time and is expected to continue to do so.
As one of the world’s leading experts in this field, Harvard Professor Mark Jacobson tweeted, “The reason we have cheap wind and solar is due to their deployment. Economies of scale dropped price and increased competition, increasing R&D improvements, dropping price more in a positive feedback.”
And “Wind+solar costs stayed high until deployment on a large scale decreased them. Wind deployment came first. As companies became bigger, they made incremental improvements (taller turbines, better pitch/yaw control+forecasts, lighter materials).”
Some might argue that wind or solar farms are not emerging sustainable technologies at all — they are already established. I disagree. For as long as they are subject to a learning rate and their costs fall exponentially, they are emerging technologies. And as the scale increases, we will see emerging sustainable technologies, such as floating wind farms or solar power using Perovskite or even graphene, create even more impetus for renewables.
Are free lunches possible?
Part of the problem with the debate on renewables is that so many vested interests don’t like them. Others may have an ideological problem with the free lunch assertion. “If renewables are so good,” they ask, “why has it taken climate change and subsidies to create the renewables industry?” The answer to that is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that markets don’t tend to have vision. For a more complex answer, sees Eric Beinhocker’s brilliant book The Origin of Wealth. In the book, Beinhocker used fitness landscapes to show how innovation can get stuck and can miss opportunities — represented by a peak in the fitness landscape because to get there, you sometimes have to take steps backwards first (represented by valleys).
Emerging sustainable technologies
We can get fooled. To enjoy the free lunch of obtaining cheaper energy by harnessing emerging sustainable technologies, we might have to first swallow a bitter pill of subsidising technologies while they are at an insufficient scale to enjoy cost advantages. Or, we can have a free lunch, but you still have to travel to the restaurant.
The challenge, of course, as we keep getting reminded, is the intermittent nature of renewables — the need for wind to drive wind turbines and sun for solar panels.
But many of the experts in the arena don’t see this as quite the problem that the legions of renewables critics suggest.
David Osmond, Principal Wind Engineer at Windlab, has created a simulation of Australia’s main electricity grid. In his model, with energy generated from wind, rooftop solar and utility solar providing 105 per cent of Australia’s electricity demand over a year, with five hours of energy backup, “renewables met 98.8 per cent of demand over the year, with the remaining 1.2 per cent met by ‘other’”.
This is Australia — maybe the potential is less significant in Europe, especially Northern Europe and North America, where it is typically less sunny. But there are multiple solutions to this, including High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC).
For example, the Xlinks Morocco-UK Power Project plans to run the world’s longest HVDC undersea cable from Morocco to England, importing enough sun and wind-generated energy to UK to supply seven million homes and meet approximately 8 per cent by 2030.
Mark Jacobson, a global warming expert at Stanford University, says that 100 per cent wind, water, and solar grid is viable using four-hour batteries. Jacobson says, “concatenating [linking together} 4-hour batteries provides long-duration storage”.
Dr Paul Dorfman from UCL Energy told me that the solution to achieving 100 per cent renewables is holistic. In other words, no single technology can do it and none of the emerging sustainable technologies offers a panacea on its own.
Instead, a combination of vehicle to grid, in which batteries in electric vehicles also back up the grid, linked-together four-hour batteries, and HVDC can collectively mitigate the intermittent nature of the renewable challenge.
AI and automation
AI and automation technologies offer a smart solution, too; they could channel energy when it is plentiful into less time-sensitive uses, such as charging up electric vehicles or heating storage heaters. For example, Drax has looked at ways of combining AI with smart meters to channel our energy use, so that we take advantage of those periods when energy creation exceeds demand.
Scaling existing technologies
The debate over whether we need new technologies or just need to scale-up existing sustainable technologies has even reached the higher echelons of power. John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, and a certain Bill Gates say we need technologies which haven’t been invented yet.
World-renowned climate change scientist Michael Mann disagrees. In his expert opinion, we just need to scale up existing technologies.
But I see two very exciting opportunities created by emerging sustainable technologies.
First, there is an opportunity for the developing world. When electricity is generated from renewables, the need for national grid connectivity is much less.
As Auke Hoekstra, senior advisor smart mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology, tweeted: “One of the things I like most about renewables: their highly distributed nature and ability to work with no or limited infrastructure.
“It’s an ideal match for developing countries who can skip some of the dirty and expensive steps of developed nations.”
But there is one other application — an application which will create extraordinary opportunity and open the way for many technologies we have been considering up to now.
When all of our power is provided by renewables, the total annual supply is likely to exceed total annual demand by a large margin.
This excess energy will effectively be free.
Consider the applications that may emerge. At the moment such applications are prohibitively expensive because the cost of energy is so high. A whole new generation of sustainable technologies will develop thanks to free or super-cheap energy at certain times. And that is an exciting prospect.
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