A 21st Century

Energy Makes Energy

Illustration – The New Normal Pt I
Energy transitions throughout history have tended to happen for logical reasons somewhere between the pressure points of cost and availability. The circumstances of our present energy revolution have been somewhat more unusual, because never before have we experienced the necessity to change our behaviour today, coming from factors predicted to take place at least partially in the future.

So whilst emphasising the gravity of the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels, we would perhaps also be wise to focus on visible motivators very much alive within the present. For example, air pollution, environmental damage, and the human illnesses that their extraction, transportation and burning cause. These can be effective catalysts for change if articulated well – pollution for example is linked to one in six deaths worldwide, and breathing difficulties, cancer, asthma, skin conditions are all on the increase. Recently, cigarettes have been successfully banned from the majority of public spaces around the world, so it seems rather ironic we’re still choking on our own exhaust fumes.

In 16th-century London, reasons for the first energy transition from wood to coal were more tangible. Richard Rhodes from Stanford University describes the problem: ‘As the city grew, a farther and farther area around it became deforested, and as transportation distances increased, wood became more expensive.’1 The less well off had to switch to coal, whilst at least to begin with, the rich could and did resist. Even in late Elizabethan times, notes Rhodes, ‘it was evident that the nobility still objected strongly to the use of the fuel.’2 Some refused to enter rooms where coal was burnt, let alone eat meat roasted over a coal fire. For the rich, burning wood became, and still is in some parts of the world, a luxury.

For practical reasons, we tend to view the first Industrial Revolution as one powered by coal – which of course it was. This was, after all, the fuel that we burned. But to see the transformation from a different perspective, change was powered not just by new machines, or even by lumps of charcoal dug from pits deep underground. It was powered wholeheartedly by everyday people just like you.

During the 1920s, coal mining in the UK peaked with the employment of 1.2 million active pairs of hands and minds,3 most working deep below ground, shifting some 300 million tonnes of coal per year. Countless lives were lost in the process – some 21,000 during this one decade alone.

Above ground a typical power station like the Tejo Plant in Lisbon employed some 500 workers who laboured day and night, fulfilling more than 45 different roles amidst the intense heat.4 From coal unloaders and shifters, to workers in the boiler rooms, carpentry or iron workshops, to the most specialised engineers and technicians – it was this human energy, passion and sometimes sacrifice, which enabled us to get closer to the higher standards of living which we are blessed with today. Perhaps the Stylistics were right when they sang ‘People make the world go round.’

Perhaps that’s also why they’re called ‘energy revolutions’ – we could happily benefit from celebrating the significanceof our own activity and ingenuity which tends to power these changes. In the midst of all this human action, things tend to happen which even the brightest minds can’t predict. For example, during the UK’s transition to coal, one problem to overcome was how to extract the material from the ground, largely trapped in seams, deep below the water table.
A second was how to transport such a dense and heavy material efficiently. Out of nowhere sprang the steam engine, effectively solving both these problems in one neat hit.

The switch from coal to oil saw similar levels of innovation, which spawned a world fleet of over one billion cars, supplied by boats almost half a kilometre long and pipelines spanning oceans and mountain ranges. The flexibility and adaptability of oil over coal was obvious, so the leap wasn’t such a hard sell, even to the naysayers.

So far, this latest transition to renewables and clean, carbon-free forms energy has been a surprisingly tough sell. Despite being a change born out of necessity, we’re yet to find catalysts as pivotal on our own urban limits as the total deforestation of the Elizabethan era. (The bush fires crisis in Australia, 2020, perhaps comes close). Meanwhile, the oil industry remains a rich and powerful force in global politics, whilst the discoveries of fresh reserves show no signs of tailing off, despite earlier predictions.

Thus the conversion to renewables has so far been dictated less by dwindling oil supplies, and pivoted more by human energy and ingenuity alone. Corresponding reasons to change behaviour have so far been solved instead with more innovative uses of our imagination.

To give you an example of this in action, it has largely been the taxpayer in Germany who bankrolled their ‘Energiewende’, or ‘green energy revolution’. Pioneering subsidies created some 20 years ago helped boost renewables from 9% in 2004 to 32% of Germany’s energy mix in 2016.5 It would seem that in the 21st century, creating the will to change is not just a matter of engineering new technology, but of engineering the desire to do things differently too.

The world has been through big energy transitions before, with every new cycle fundamentally changing the course of human history. Whilst the media becomes fixated on the type of energy being harvested (whether that be solar, hydro or wind), we often forget in reality that through any period of dramatic change, it is always a human story, and the people themselves who power it.

During the age of wood, around 1700, a typical fireplace sent about 80% of its heat straight up the chimney. To keep the fire going through the winter months took for one person an entire month of cutting, splitting and stacking. Conversely today, a single heat pump can exchange the warmth stored within the earth or air, and by passing it through a compressor, raise the temperature indoors to a comfortable temperature, even in the depths of winter. When looking at the constantly evolving human story this way, this is inarguably remarkable progress.

The challenges yet to be solved may be huge, but they are not necessarily insurmountable. One alarming statistic yet to be fully factored involves predictions that our appetite for energy is only set to rise, with an extra load on overall demand of an extra 41% predicted by just 20356. Whilst this presents serious challenges to how energy flow is managed and stored in the future, particularly how to handle peak load times. Smart technology, together with increasing access to ‘intelligent systems’, is already beginning to show the potential to provide some of the answers.

How we meet this challenge of rebalancing the grid can be seen as a healthy metaphor for how we rebalance the needs of society as a whole at the same time. Perhaps more two-way energy flow, and the adaptation to smarter, more efficient systems, would be a good place to start for everyone.

It is so easy to get caught up in problems when they are defined in inaccessible language such as ‘leveraging data for smarter energy management.’ But the bottom line of today’s energy transformation can be given a much simpler frame – it’s about finding ways of empowering more people in the world to make their own unique contribution. By nurturing an environment which fosters all of us to become smarter and wiser, the data then becomes just another tool.

The crux of this present energy revolution is essentially solving the problem of keeping everything moving – people, families, jobs, cars, buses, trains, planes, economies, and on the grand scale all the world’s natural systems. We can only do this by also moving forwards collective human wisdom, ethics, and the capability of our own imagination at the same time.

We’ve already established Modernism couldn’t have started without first the bulk of the Industrial Revolution taking place first (affordable, plentiful steel and concrete were the materials upon which the movement was built). Likewise, a credible Sustainable Movement this century simply isn’t possible before a wholesale transition to renewables and sources of clean energy gains at least pivotal momentum.

Reassuringly, the conversation around energy conservation was once about the things we might have to sacrifice, whilst moving forwards, talk is increasingly focused around the new and exciting things that we can make. This is a huge moment in human history, where our collective actions thus far towards the clean energy revolution have already partially changed from those of reaction to action. These efforts will soon reward us with the lower costs that could prove to make the remainder of this energy transition unstoppable.

Illustration – The New Normal Pt II

Next ︎
Chapter 14 —
Digital need not be Digital

Credits & Notes

1 – 2
Richard Rhodes
‘Energy Transitions: A Curious History’
Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University (2007)

Wikipedia Page
‘Coal mining in the United Kingdom ’

Wikipedia Page
‘Tejo Power Station (Working Conditions)’

Pilita Clark
‘The Big Green Bang:
How renewable energy became unstoppable’
Financial Times (May 18 2017)

Simon Mouat
‘A New Paradigm for Utilities:
The Rise of the Prosumer’
Schnieder Electric Blog
blog.se.com (Nov  2016)


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