Alternative energy schemes are going to be making important inroads around the globe. But the social implications of this should not be underestimated. A recent study by the Energy Savings Trust in the UK outlines how the scenario is likely to unfold in Britain.
The study, entitled Power in Numbers, underscores the vast untapped potential of schemes that are organized at local and community level. “Today energy generated by communities could produce about 13% of all household needs. With the right policies in place this potential could rise to 54%,” according to the report.
The Energy Savings Trust, which aims to promote the efficient use of energy and carbon footprint reductions, proposes to create community energy services companies (ESCOs) set up to initiate and finance projects. Non-technical barriers should also be eliminated if local and community energy schemes are going to work, the organization said in its report.
The practical set up of the schemes sounds alluring because considerable savings can be made by scaling up wind, solar or biomass schemes from individual to community-sized projects. Private households could save 34% of the cost of producing solar hot water and 18% of electricity from wind turbines.
Similar logic echoes through the pages of a global energy reduction report written by the global consultancy McKinsey. The document points out that while energy demand will continue to grow, “there are sufficiently economically viable opportunities for energy-productivity improvements that could keep global energy-demand growth at less than 1% per annum – or less than half of the 2.2% average growth to 2020 anticipated in our base-case scenario.”
The consultants calculate that global energy demand can be cut by the equivalent of 64 million barrels of oil per day, or almost 150 percent of today’s entire U.S. energy consumption. This scenario outlines how these alternative energy schemes can be successfully realized.
Successful alternative energy projects will require cross fertilization between energy and information technology/social networks. Scientists both in the US and Europe are already signaling this repeatedly. The European Science Foundation issued a communique only yesterday entitled Harnessing Solar Energy for the Production of Clean Fuel in which it outlined a few of the social implications of overturning the energy paradigm. “Direct conversion of solar energy into fuel represents one of the very few major options that humankind has to provide socially, economically and environmentally robust and resilient renewable fuel with energy security that is guaranteed in a humanitarian instead of confrontational manner,” according to the briefing.
Social initiatives can help overcome opposition to this future energy landscape. “The overall goal of the social research in this regard will be to forecast the alternative paths in a future solar energy socio-technical system. This would allow for more adaptive and interactive planning instruments”, the organization says.
And US engineers and computer scientists at USC Viterbi stressed a few highly practical issues in a white paper about the intersection of energy and information science. “This is an area where Viterbi has a significant track record,” one engineer was quoted as saying by ScienceDaily. “Furthermore, we believe other organizations have overlooked the impact that information technology can make on this very important area of research: energy.”
A hearing on Capitol Hill of Dan Reicher, the head of Google’s energy and environment unit is probably one of the most insightful events on what US opinion leaders are pondering on the subject. “The increasing interplay between energy hardware and information software – and the corresponding rise of the Internet and the connectivity it brings – adds to the potential to make and to use energy more productively,” Reicher told the Joint Economic Committee Hearing on “Efficiency: The Hidden Secret to Solving Our Energy Crisis”. A development that might provide a speedy impulse in adapting people to new energy set ups could be smart metering to a smart grid – all the devices that enable people to monitor and manage their energy.
The McKinsey research affirms that the residential sector is going to play an essential part in achieving global energy-productivity improvements. Energy productivity can receive a boost in various curious ways – for instance it can be achieved by reducing the energy inputs required to produce the same level of energy, or from increasing the quality or quantity of economic outputs. That’s the biggest picture of what we’re dealing with without a doubt. The report concludes that globally the largest untapped potential for cost-effective energy productivity gains –>10% Internal Rate of Return – is lying dormant in the residential sector (e.g. better building shells and more efficient water heating and lighting), power generation sector (e.g. more efficient power plants and electricity distribution) and industrial sector (e.g. less energy-intensive oil refineries and steel plants).
What we’re going to be seeing a lot in the future are community and local schemes that are capturing on hitherto dormant potential. But no doubt significant policy changes will have to made to facilitate the process. And the inefficiencies including information gaps and agency issues won’t just go away either.