10 November 2011: The Energy Internet

Jeremy Rifkin has a vision for bringing “power to the people” – a vast network of small scale local producers and consumers of energy all continually transacting via an “energy internet”. A “democratisation” of energy, which is “distributed, transparent, open and collaborative”.

This is laid out in his recent book The Third Industrial Revolution and was presented by him this week at an event organised by Forum for the Future and chaired by Jonathan Porrit. It’s a compelling vision and very strongly communicated – but the economic fundamentals seem to be in opposition to the vision.

He says even “concentrated” renewables – that is, large scale wind and solar offshore and in the desert – are “too top-down, too narrow” and he is unable to answer how the economics for local renewables generation can ever be better than those for remote generation – when the differential in available resource is a factor of 2.5. This means an investment in essentially the same amount of steel and other materials will return 2.5 times as much energy when the generators are placed in the best locations, as opposed to being placed where people live.

Why? Well, for example, the solar resource in the UK is about 900 kWh/m2.yr, while in parts of North Africa its 2500 kWh/m2.yr (which is about the highest it ever gets anywhere).

Yes, we have to build more wires to get it the energy back from remote installations – but as a number of studies have shown, this only adds a small fraction to the energy cost (see ECF Roadmap 2050: NEW REPORT: Power Perspectives 2030).

I’m not sure he responds convincingly to this objection, or to other questions about ways and means. And I think he’s shaky on the numbers – for example, he kept throwing out the statement that the grid wastes about 20% of the electrical energy it transports – whereas the real figure in the UK is about 7%.

However, the argument does throw light on the key dynamic at the heart of the energy race question. It’s very compelling to argue, as he does, that the revolution will happen anyway, as a result of consumer power through an Energy Internet. However,at the same time, he acknowledges that the Internet requires government to get it started. In fact, it is true that any and all major infrastructure revolutions anywhere have been driven by governments and, as we know, government commitment is the only factor that is currently driving significant energy change anywhere. For example, the Germans are the largest PV installers thanks to their government feed in tariff and the Chinese are the largest manufacturer thanks to large government investment and export credit support. Of course, it’s pretty clear that by far the strongest force in the world speeding the clean transition now is the Chinese government – hardly a paragon of democratisation.

I’d love to be proved wrong. Of course, much of my own work to date has been in small scale distributed energy – but I can’t see that arguing “small is beautiful despite the economics” really helps. Surely, it’s time to get rid of the “small is beautiful” myth when it comes to clean energy? Surely, what matters is that it is clean, abundant, and relatively cheap? Period.

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