Kate Mackenzie Why the tech revolution isn’t a template for an energy revolution

It seems a long time ago now, but back in February there was an awful lot of fuss about an energy company that had supposedly come up with a revolutionary new technology.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple, despite the roster of Silicon Valley stars that lined up to trial the company’s wares. Yet breathless reports of exciting energy technologies continue to pop up periodically, particularly in recent years in connection with the information technology world, as many IT entrepreneurs have decided to focus on ‘clean tech’. Some have no doubt made big inroads, such as electric car maker Tesla.

But the idea that the great leaps made by IT and networking technologies in the past decade can be easily transferred to the looming energy challenge is shallow and misleading.

As Vaclav Smil, a prominent energy writer and professor at the University of Manitoba, wrote:

I have named this delusion Moore’s curse because (unlike the crowding of transistors on a microchip) it is fundamentally (that is thermodynamically) impossible for the machines and processes that now constitute the complex infrastructure of global energy extraction, conversion, transportation and transmission to double their capacity or performance, microchip-like, every 18-24 months.

Why is this? There are several reasons:

Coming up with new energy systems doesn’t offer fun or lucrative new services

With energy you only want to do one thing: provide people with ways to power their lives (including transportation). And that one thing has a lot of constraints: it has to be affordable, deliverable, constant and safe in both the short- and long-term.

Unlike the internet, the energy infrastructure has no application layer upon which all sorts of diverting and profitable services can be built. Yes, smart meters might be entertaining for a while; but energy itself does not lend itself to exciting new consumer-end products. Marketing counts for little, if anything.

Energy is more important

And why should it? Energy is simpler and less exciting precisely because it is more important than some other things; it underlies and powers everything electrical, industrial, and most forms of transport.

Reading “The Prize”, Daniel Yergin’s seminal tome on the history of oil, it is striking how scrappy the industry’s origins were – but also, how quickly it grew. New railways lines were built, techniques were developed, shipping routes were established, and giant companies grew. Then came the car, which moved in a few decades from an object of curiosity (and even derision) to a widespread form of transport in the western world. Roads, delivery and other related infrastructure sprung up rapidly. It was a dramatic change.

The difference is, today we are accustomed to an energy intensive world. Oil is a highly concentrated source of energy. New and more palatable sources of energy, that is, renewables, are less concentrated.

As Gregor MacDonald writes:

And here we find the largest hurdle of all. For, in humanity’s last two transitions, from wood to coal and then coal to oil, the trajectory each time was to a higher power density energy source. Energy transition is disruptive enough, but much less so when you are gaining energy density. And how do you suppose transition will be this time, going in the opposite direction, to lower density sources?

Energy transitions are hindered by the built environment

As Shell chief executive Peter Voser told an audience in Beijing in March:

Our industry is very different from, say, the consumer electronics industry.

A mobile phone company may have 18 months to develop and market a new mobile phone, if it wants to beat the competition.

In the energy sector, the scale of investments and new projects is massive, and “18 months” feels more like “18 minutes”.

We’ve researched all of the current energy types and found that in the twentieth century, it took 30 years for new energy types to capture 1% of the market.

For instance, biofuels are reaching their 1% share of the oil market around now, which is equivalent to 0.5% of total energy. Wind could do so by the middle of this decade, . . . roughly three decades after the first large wind parks were built in Denmark and the United States, and thanks also to the huge effort made here in China to deploy wind capacity.

Information technology is not only beguiling, it can increase productivity exponentially.

Energy has also increased productivity, fuelling the industrial revolution and much that has happened since. Energy economists would contend that its importance in economic development cannot be stressed highly enough.

But unlike information technology, it also must contend with the laws of thermodynamics paraphrased by one scientist as:

“You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t quit the game.”

In other words, you can’t create energy, you simply move it around (fossil fuels, for example, simply release energy that has been stored and concentrated over millions of years); you can’t avoid wasting some energy when you move it around; and you can’t stop using energy altogether.

That said, there are some amazing technologies currently being developed and clearly innovation is of vital importance.  And Silicon Valley has made some important contributions — and the scale of the energy challenge means that no contribution can be ignored.

But the sorts of hurdles that energy innovation requires can’t be brushed aside, or easily solved by coming up with a new set of protocols.