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Tag Archives: technology

Eco-footprints and technological change

By Dave Elliott

In their paper ‘A system of systems approach to energy sustainability assessment: are all renewables really green?’ Saeed Hadian (UCLA) and Kaveh Madani (ICL), take a comprehensive look at energy system carbon footprints, water footprints, land footprints and costs. They conclude that geothermal energy has the lowest impact, biomass elephant grass the most. As you might expect, coal and oil are also high, wind and solar thermal low, but so is nuclear, while PV solar comes out quite high – more than hydro, or gas: – cor0005


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Beyond Technical Fixes

By Dave Elliott

In their powerful 2011 book ‘Techno fix’, radical North American ‘greens’ Michael and Joyce Huesemann challenged what they saw as ‘a pervasive belief that technological innovation will enable us to continue our current lifestyle indefinitely and will prevent social, economic and environmental collapse’. They said that techno-optimism was completely unjustified. If driven by continued economic growth, technology did not promote sustainability but hastened collapse. Instead we needed radical social change: ‘as long as technology is used for control and exploitation, negative social and environmental effects are inherently unavoidable.’ So they looked to a future of less invasive, decentralized communities, based on ‘the values of social and environmental harmony, cooperation and mutual enhancement’, with participatory design to ensure greater democratic control of technology and harmony with nature.


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Innovation: new energy for the UK

By Dave Elliott

Technological innovation is exciting but risky: blue skies thinking can open up possibilities, but they also have to be tested against reality. It’s easy to get deceived by early hopeful predictions of potential success and allegedly ‘game changing’ developments. We are regularly hit by blasts of enthusiastic coverage of hi tech innovations in the energy field, but not all of it will prove to be viable (more…)

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Innovation: helping to sustain green growth

By Dave Elliott

Total global investment in clean energy fell 9% in 2013 to $254bn, following a 9% drop in 2012, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Some of this was due to the reduced costs of PV solar, and some to erratic government support. However, in the wake of the global recession, the growth of renewables does seem under some stress, with the EU’s proposal to abandon mandatory national renewable energy targets (see my last post) being another recent unwelcome development. Can the emergence of new technologies and techniques help rebuild momentum? (more…)

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Is your ‘Vision’ the same as your climate science colleagues?

by Liz Kalaugher

In climate science, projections tend to be long-term and patience is required to discover their accuracy. But by entering the Vision Prize polls you can find out in just a few months how well you predicted your colleagues’ views, as well as how much you agree with majority thinking.

vision-prize-160x60In this quarter’s polls you can comment on when sea-level will rise 1 metre above 2000 levels, which regions will see most weather disasters in the 2030s, the likelihood of geoengineering deployment in the form of solar radiation management, which technologies could most slow climate change this century, and whether burning all currrent fossil fuel reserves would bring more than 3 degrees of warming.

It’s free to sign up, participants are vetted to ensure they have relevant expertise, the poll takes around 5-10 minutes to complete, and the best predictors win prizes for the charity of their choice.

  • environmentalresearchweb has set up a collaboration with VisionPrize.


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Current economic difficulties are not the fault of single decisions or decision-makers; it’s energy, stupid!

The current conundrum discussed in the news and the public is between (1) Western government spending to keep stimulating their economies after the decade-long period of overspending and (2) savings to prevent future collapse of governments under their own debt burden. Unfortunately, energy resource availability is rarely a part of the discussion, and pundits never point to it as a core driver. This is quite unfortunate.

There is no one consensus on the “economic growth” issue among mainstream economists as the proper choice, or series of choices, is quite unclear. There appears to be no good path, only a choice between bad paths. Ecological or biophysical economic arguments have historically been quickly dismissed as invalid, yet no other economic theories are based upon anything tangible. We hear of the need to “consumer confidence” as if that is a tangible and meaningful reason to invest. Irrational exuberance, or extreme confidence, is exactly what pushed us to two boom-bust cycles (dot-com and now housing) over the last two decades. Confidence only takes you so far, and at some point you need something tangible upon which to base economic theory. That tangible good is essentially natural resources, primarily energy, and the technologies that convert those resources to consumer products and services.

Because increasing consumption of natural and energy resources are the key driver of economic growth, if you do not increase their consumption, you do not grow. Yes, more efficient energy production and conversion systems (power plants, vehicles, mining, etc.) also induce economic growth, but the past only indicates the higher efficiency begets higher total consumption – due to Jevon’s Paradox. However, when fossil resource availability does decline due to depletion, we’ll be happy for higher efficiency services even when total consumption decreases.

Adding or switching to energy resources and technologies, where they exist, takes decades. Translation: this is longer than election cycles. Thus, a US president that implements energy efficiency or conservation policies will generally not reap the rewards or drawbacks of those policies. The next President, or perhaps a second one down the line, will be dealing with those problems. Since 2000, the United States has consumed roughly the same total amount of primary energy, about 100 quadrillion Btus per year. There has never been a time in US history at which total energy consumption was stagnant for this long. Much of the reason for the stagnation in energy consumption was offshoring of energy-intensive industries to developing countries, and thus there are less and less non-skilled jobs available after each economic downturn. The US economy restructured based upon increasing energy prices during the last decade, and companies traded cheap energy in the form of the muscle of Chinese, for more expensive energy, in the form of natural gas and petroleum.

Thus, major structural changes in the US economy have occurred over the last decade, and no policy can reverse these trends in less than another decade. The reason that economists, and even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake are calling the economic future “unusually uncertain” is that the US has never encountered the situation at which we now reside. Energy consumption is flat. World oil production is at a plateau. We have shipped jobs to China and borrow their profits to feed our consumption habit. Unemployment is high.

Policy can’t ship more jobs to China because hindering employment even further is a political death nail. Policy can promote offshore oil and renewable energy technologies, but those resources and technologies have lower energy return on energy invested (EROI) than the resources we have used in the past. Lower EROI means more of the economy must focus on energy production itself rather than producing other more discretionary economic goods. And a change in transportation mode (electric cars, electric and/or high speed trains) will take decades, and these changes can work, but they may never be as economically as productive as burning petroleum at $20/BBL to $60/BBL.

So the reason that economists see a “sluggish” or “low-growth” economy in the foreseeable future is due to energy. From 2000-2008, we pretended that high rates of GDP growth could occur without increasing energy consumption. Increasing prosperity of the developing world has strained energy resources to the point that we must adjust to a future with energy consumption that is both lower and from new resources and technologies. These technologies and resources, even without considering altering them to prevent greenhouse gas emissions, are less productive. So if you put these concepts together, you end up with the result that we must (1) invest in new energy technologies that (2) employ more people per output (kWh, liter of fuel, etc.) and produce (3) lower net energy than historical coal, natural gas, and oil (even future coal, oil, and natural gas are less productive) such that (4) the energy sector grows as a proportion of the economy and (5) by definition the rest of the economy must shrink. Either this reality we become true, or the scientists working on fusion will pull a rabbit out of hat. No tax policy of a President will do much to significantly alter this equation. Only energy consumers can wait to see if we do or do not pull off sufficient technology solutions, and adjust their habits accordingly.

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