We need a ‘soft energy path’ for the transition, not a hard one

Excerpted from Keith Parkins:

“The current energy path is a hard path. Hard paths are brittle. Brittle paths cannot survive sudden shocks and are liable to break. A soft energy path is one that is pliable, one that matches the energy source to the energy demand.

Consumers don’t demand energy, they demand goods and services. Energy is the means to deliver these goods. Thus we don’t ask how many kilowatts does each individual, community or factory want but how do we supply their goods and services. From the viewpoint of the end user there is no economic demand for oil, kilowatts, fissile uranium, but an abstract demand for energy upon which all our creature comforts depend. We should therefore supply the most appropriate energy in the most energy efficient way to meet those demands. Traditional thought, not only the faceless corporations and bureaucrats but also the environmentalists, has focused on the wrong issues.

Apart from a few bozos who cruise around for pleasure, most people don’t travel around in the car for the purpose of consuming miles, but because they need some service and the car is the means of obtaining that service. Which is why most transport policies with the emphasis on car is bad, public transport is good, reminiscent of the mantra in Animal Farm ‘two legs is bad, four legs is good’ fails. That is not to say that no one recognises traffic jams, gridlock, pollution, energy consumption, global warming as bad, or the need for good, cheap, reliant, efficient public transport. As a generalisation these ills are recognised as bad, but this is an abstract problem, caused by others, of little consequence when late for work, getting the kids to school, going shopping or a night out at the theatre. Abstract problems caused by the selfishness of others, never ourselves. What people want is access to services. These services are remote, a process accelerated by modern planning practices of zoning and out-of-town shopping. Building more roads does not help, it merely serves to generate more traffic. Most people measure the viability of a journey by time, not miles. The converse to building more roads also works, closing roads leads to less traffic as the journey is no longer viable or alternative transport modes are used. The transport problem is a planning, social and resource problem.

Energy planners, partly through monopolies, partly through corporate control think in terms of Gigawatts, anything smaller is not viable, certainly not commercially viable. Consumption is generally measured in kilowatts or less. A rare exception are aluminium smelters which do require Gigawatts and some other industrial processes. In these rare cases a Gigawatt plant adjacent to the industrial process makes a whole lot of sense. Other than these rare exceptions there is a huge mismatch between generation and consumption.

There are many more of these mismatches. Most of what we conventionally think of as energy generation plants are nothing of the sort, they are energy conversion plants. They convert low grade energy to high grade energy, that is they are conversions plants with built in inefficiencies. The greater the ratio between high grade and low grade energy, then the greater the inefficiency. Not an inefficiency due to malfunction or poor design, but a theoretical problem as a consequence of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Energy conversion in a electricity power station is the classic example of energy inefficiency. Energy is pushed uphill from a low grade source to produce electricity. In doing so power stations dissipate energy which we see as waste heat from a power station, a potential waste problem that has to be disposed of. In a typical power station 1/3 output as electricity, 2/3 as waste heat. if we now look at the end use, the final conversion output is low grade heat (usually only a few degrees above ambient). One of the worst examples we can find of a mismatch between energy usage and energy source in terms of quality of energy.

Focus on the end use. What do we want? We want low grade heat. Therefore generate low grade heat with electricity as the by-product (Combined Heat and Power). CHP schemes begin to approach 100% efficiency. The small scale means community friendly, large numbers means standard parts, easily mass produced. Conventional power stations are essentially one-off systems.

Electricity generation denotes another mismatch. At generation we can talk of Megawatts per square metre, consumption is milliwatts per square metre. Another mismatch is that of geography, generation and supply remote from consumption, the two connected by extremely fragile links (as every countryside dweller discovers in severe weather, or whole countries and regions discover during periods of geopolitical instability).

We can see this in the ludicrous state of wind generation The mindset says electricity, the mindset says Gigawatts, Megawatts at the very least. We thus have wind farms imposed upon the landscape. Few places are suitable because of the Megawatt mentality, wind being a very disperse energy source. Yet what do we have? Dispersed consumers. Wind, then, far from being a problem becomes the solution as it is also the distributor and its disperse nature matches that of the consumer.

Small wind turbines, a few kilowatts, are generally regarded as unreliable. This is to misunderstand reliable. It is true that they can not be relied upon to generate electricity 100% of the time or to generate sufficient all of the time but that is to miss the point. Whilst they are generating, each kilowatt output is a kilowatt not drawn from the grid, when in surplus power can be returned to the grid. It is also to focus upon electricity. The turbines can be used to generate rough electricity (not suitable for telecomms) but this can be fed into a load for space heating or pre-heating of water.

The focus is on wind generation of electricity. Traditional use of wind power was for mechanical power. Windmills for corn grinding, windmills for water pumping, water-mills for corn grinding, later for use in iron foundries. In the 1950s the countryside in Lincolnshire was dotted with windmills for draining the fens. In Cyprus, the countryside around Ayia Napa and Paralimni is dotted with windmills used to pump underground water for irrigation. Sadly few are now working, having been replaced by noisy, smelly diesel pumps.

Large-scale electricity systems are brittle. The whole system, grid, power generators, has at all times to be synchronous (frequency and phase). Pull down one part and it may pull down the rest. In the States brownouts and blackouts are common. In the UK these are on the increase due to the lack of maintenance. In the States power lines cut out when overloaded. This in turn caused power stations to cut out as they had no load. More lines cut out. Eventually the whole system collapsed. It took days to restore. Why? Any one part assumed the rest of the system was functional to kick start. Power stations drew from the grid to power pumps and other essential equipment. Cables drew power to circulate coolant. As the system slowly dragged itself up, it cut out again as parts became unbalanced and overloaded.”

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