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Tag Archives: alternative technology

In praise of (total) demand response

By Dave Elliott

‘If we could manage to adjust all energy demand to variable solar and wind resources, there would be no need for grid extensions, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants. Likewise, all the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines would be utilised, with no transmission losses and no need for curtailment or energy storage’.

So says an interesting, wide ranging but wellreferenced article in Low Tech Magazine. It goes on ‘of course, adjusting energy demand to energy supply at all times is impossible, because not all energy using activities can be postponed. However, the adjustment of energy demand to supply should take priority, while the other strategies should play a supportive role’. (more…)

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Back to basics

Over the past couple of years I have been interviewed by a range of postgrads, journalists and media persons about the ‘AT’ movement in the 1970s. The term ‘Alternative Technology’ (AT) described a range of new smaller-scale decentralised and ecologically sound technologies that their supporters felt were better suited to the sort of society they wished to see emerge in future. But it wasn’t just all talk. Some of the pioneers built prototypes (of small wind turbines, solar collectors and the like) and set up co-operatives and communities to test out their ideas in practice. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, now a well established and much visited attraction, was one of them.

With sustainable development a key issue and renewable energy no longer being a fringe utopian dream, some of the early AT ideas seem to have become mainstream. So perhaps, as we seek to find ways ahead, it is not surprising that interest in the original movement has re-emerged, at least amongst some academics. The ESRC has funded a seminar series exploring ‘sustainability transitions’ which it sees as ‘projected processes of social change to sustainable patterns of production and consumption’ based in part on a review of the lessons of the AT movement in the 1970s. That is one focus of a seminar to be held in April at Salford University. http://sustainabilitytransitions.info/

The project’s web site says: ‘The reason for organising this workshop is to create a context for thinking reflexively and constructively about the wider lessons and insights of the crises in the 1970s for the challenge of creating a low carbon transition today’.

Certainly the 1970s saw the beginnings of a grass roots ‘green’ movement, which has grown apace and become more visible now. So it is may be useful to ask why it started out then. The project blub says ‘Critically the period of economic, ecological and state crisis spawned a period of conflict, contestation and debate about the future direction of society of which alternative technologies were a part’.

And it says that, now, in the 2010’s ‘we are once again in a period of significant structural change. Economic crisis, ecological crisis associated with climate change and crises of state response. And yet again huge degree of interest in different eco-technical responses to crisis that seems to reflect period of experimentation in 1970s’. It finishes by asking ‘what are the similarities and differences between these periods when thinking about low carbon transition?’

It will be interesting to see what emerges and also to see what ideas emerge about where we go from here from another gathering on AT, this one being ‘AT@40’ in March at the Architectural Association in London. It has been called to mark forty years since the first large AT conference, which was held at UCL in 1972, and will be addressed by some of the original pioneers. However it’s not to be just an exercise in nostalgia. It will also look to the future and ask difficult questions such as, are grass roots community initiatives marginal distractions or vital seed-beds for change? Is technology enough, don’t we also need social change?

The latter issue had emerged at the 1972 UCL conference, at which one disgruntled participant said ‘I came here to talk about windmills, not politics’. It was an issue that continued to be debated within the AT movement. In 1973, AT pioneer Peter Harper wrote a seminal article in issue 5 of Undercurrents, which was in many ways the house magazine of the AT movement. He said that we needed to move beyond ‘AT’ gadgets, and look at how things were produced.
See: www.scribd.com/doc/9085962/Undercurrents-05-Winter-1973

Nearly 40 years on, this still hasn’t been resolved. The AT movement would no doubt be pleased to see that most of the wind projects in Denmark and Germany are locally owned by wind coops and the like, and even a few in the UK. But some bits of AT hardware are now being produced and sold just like any other consumer products. And some of the large-scale renewable energy technologies are designed, produced and run by large companies in ways that are very different to what some of the AT pioneers may have had in mind. As AT becomes a reality, at least in hardware terms, production issues may be the new focus- who produces what, how is production organised and controlled, where should it be based and how are the benefits and costs shared?

If there are modern messages from the AT movement then one could be that, after the recession, we can’t expect just to return to the comfort zone of metal-bashing industry and mass production- if we want to avoid climate change. We need a new economy and a new industry, producing new products. We know about some of the products we should be producing- green energy technology, and so on. And that’s beginning to happen. But we also need to think about how and where they are produced- what that means for resources and for people. That sounds like a call for a return to the old familiar debate, all but abandoned by the conventional political parties, over and ownership and control, although cast in a new greener light.

The Campaign against Climate Change, along with a range of Trade Union groups, have called for a ‘Just Transition’, in which the social and economic costs and benefits of moving towards a sustainable future are fairly distributed. That is even more important during a recession, when some see clean technology as being one way to stimulate a revival. Maybe we need a dash of radical AT thinking back in the mix.

AT@40 Conference: https://mcs-notes2.open.ac.uk/QuickPay.nsf/Payment.xsp?ID=AT40

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