Afterword Sustainable Energy The Challenge of Choice

Andy Stirling

What are our possible energy futures? Which directions are open to us, and which closed? How should we prioritise the challenges posed by climate change, nuclear risk, toxic pollution and landscape impact? How to reconcile these with economic competitiveness, energy security, poverty reduction and democratic choice? Which mixes of technologies and policies offer the best balance of pros and cons? Whose knowledges, values and judgements should we best trust as a guide? When and how should we decide? In democratic societies with liberalised markets, how can deliberate, urgent, radical change come about? How might the perceived legitimacy of such changes affect long-term success?

The discussion of these questions in Energy for the Future is of value to anyone with an interest in what is arguably the most urgent, intractable and demanding challenge ever faced in the history of public policy. For the first time, we are contemplating the possibility that we might, as a worldwide society, begin deliberately to steer the direction taken by technological progress. With fears of potential worldwide environmental catastrophe juxtaposed against the entrenched inertia of the entire global economic system, the stakes are on an unprecedented scale.

There remain many complexities, contradictions, confusions and uncertainties. The rights and wrongs are hotly contested by clamouring voices and powerful interests. Yet there emerge from this book several points of reassuring common ground and potential hope.

The first such crucial reference point is that, whatever happens, we can agree that the world is facing the prospect of a radical energy transition. Whether driven by climate change or depleting reserves, global inequalities or ecological degradation, technological innovation or geopolitical forces, one way or another our energy economy is set to be irrevocably transformed. Historically speaking, each of these contrasting imperatives is quite imminent. All promise to act over the space of a single human lifetime. No matter what the perspective, then, business as usual is not a long-run option.

Another thing that is sure is that (though never before so deliberate) the prospect of such radical transformations is not entirely new. Over the past two centuries and more, history has been punctuated by several such profound transitions. First, there was the shift from wood to coal. Steam power forged an industrial revolution, drove global enterprises and helped consolidate empires. Then there was the move to oil. This shaped our cities, paved our landscapes, transformed our experience of mobility, and helped redraw the political map of the world.

After that, we saw the rise of the great centralised electricity grids. For many, these brought technologies that transfigured the home, creating new forms of work, revolutionising communications and helping to recast our family relationships. Half a century ago, the advent of nuclear energy helped seal the outcome of a momentous war, once more reshaping world politics and heralding unprecedented visions, both of cornucopia and disaster. Over the timescale of a human generation now routinely contemplated in current energy debates, the full implications of these transformations were not clearly predicted - or even arguably predictable - in advance.

This links to a third important element of common ground. These profound and pervasive energy transformations were not (even in retrospect) determined in any simple fashion. Rather than a straightforward linear progression from scientific discovery to hard engineering to market optimisation, they were driven by complex webs of influences and interactions. Likewise, their consequences were enmeshed in a diverse array of other forces. Each could have unfolded differently. The phenomenon of 'lock in', under which certain technological configurations can come to dominate others at the earliest stages of development, can arise for historically contingent (or even quite arbitrary) reasons. But, once committed, the results can be very difficult to shift. Remarkably, this can happen even if the configurations being locked-in display what everyone would recognise as relatively poor performance.

That this is so is widely recognised in the stories of narrow gauge railways, the QWERTY keyboard, the VHS video and modern inferior (but widely used) forms of computer software (David, 1985). These (and many other) examples show how, even in the most competitive of markets, relatively poor configurations may come to be adopted, as long as there is an expectation that this is a path that others will pursue and a fear about being left out of the resulting benefits of shared practice (Arthur, 1989). In some cases the more a technology is adopted, the more it improves through scale economies, learning and use. These socio-economic factors can, however, also favour technologies that remain technically inferior. Powerful positive feedback effects may outbalance even a quite significant initial performance disadvantage. For all our engineering skills, political acumen and hard-nosed market disciplines, then, we cannot guarantee that we will avoid self-evidently poor long-term technology choices.

One salient example for the current energy debate can be found in the early history of nuclear power. Here, the urgent Cold War climate in the aftermath of World War II drove a rapid consolidation of nuclear reactor design philosophies around two military applications. The first was the desire to recover the plutonium produced in nuclear reactions, in order to use this in nuclear weapons manufacture. This meant removing irradiated fuel before its useful energy content had been fully depleted. The resulting need for 'on-load refuelling' in turn led to an early concentration on graphite-moderated designs, such as the steam-cooled reactor used at Chernobyl and the gas-cooled design widely deployed in the UK. Secondly, early nuclear reactor design was driven by the demand for highly compact sources of power suitable for use in the confined spaces of a submarine. This led to the high power density light water reactor design, presenting particular challenges for the effective removal of heat from the relatively small core (Cowan, 1990).

The key point to note here is that neither of these trajectories was initially optimised for civilian power reduction. Embedded features prioritising on-load refuelling and high power densities can impose serious knock-on design constraints. These militate against optimisation for efficient operation, low waste production, proliferation resistance and inherent safety characteristics. Yet variants on these well-developed early concepts (rather than the multitude of other possible reactor designs) continue to provide the basis for present discussions over future nuclear investments. It is ironic that protests are still heard that nuclear power benefited disproportionately from early military support. These examples show that reality can be more complex. Pushing forward rapidly by concentrating resources on individual favoured technologies can certainly create short-term advantage. But, if this involves lock-in around suboptimal configurations for wider society, this can actually lead to long run technological disadvantages.

What is true of the way real history unfolds can also apply to the ways we think about the future and frame energy policy debates. A particularly important factor here is the way in which our expectations over possible futures can become self-fulfilling (Brown and Michael, 2003). Positive or negative expectations over the manner in which different technologies will develop become a concrete mechanism driving the kinds of 'lock-in' described above. This is a message that has not been lost on those marshalling all sides of current energy policy debates. The results are evident in discourses promoting a variety of possible (but partly incompatible) energy transitions, like those towards centralised nuclear power or distributed renewable energy. By successfully asserting one set of expectations over another, tangible impacts can be gained on the climates of opinion governing planning, purchasing, training, regulation and capital investment. In this way, apparently neutral predictions by influential figures in government, industry or wider public life, can actually help to mould - as well as reflect - possible futures.

This has important implications for the ways in which we deliberate over energy policy. It is on the apparently ephemeral basis of discursive expectations, for instance, that we find ourselves undertaking the ostensibly much more concrete business of calculating costs and benefits. To take the same example as above, the relative economics of nuclear power and renewable energy look very different under two contrasting scenarios. If we assume that our future electricity infrastructures will shift towards distributed, low-voltage, smart-metered electricity systems, subject to intelligent control and flexible supply contracts, then small-scale, renewable energy and energy service innovations can be expected to thrive (Sauter and Watson, 2007). If we assume instead the persistence of traditional large power stations, presiding over high-voltage transmission systems, with one-way distribution and conventional tariffs, then traditional fossil and nuclear power will enjoy a corresponding persistent advantage.

Yet if cost assumptions were always based on the old infrastructure rather than the new, then major investments like those in canals, railways, telephones, mobile phones, nuclear power and electricity itself might never have been undertaken. The question is, which of a number of contending visions for new infrastructures will actually bear fruit? While rigorous technical appraisal will always be a necessity, it is not in itself sufficient. Also important are the underlying values, assumptions and expectations over the broad characters of our possible desirable futures. This highlights the need, emphasised in this book, to always place analysis in the context of healthy political debate, involving open reflection, critical deliberation and effective public participation.

But there exist many more concrete processes of 'lock-in' than the discursive assertion of expectations and their effects on technical appraisal.

These present a series of serious further challenges to the governance of energy systems. Economics, for instance, reveals a host of other potential positive feedback mechanisms that are available to powerful incumbents dominating existing markets (Arthur, 1994; Unruh, 2000). These involve factors such as: tuning the terms of finance, fixing pricing tariffs, influencing standard-setting, shaping planning provisions, setting procurement strategies, steering regulatory policies, investing in training capacity, controlling professional accreditation, forcing contractual terms and limiting liability rules (Hughes, 1983; Walker, 2000). All can be variously structured so as to favour or disfavour particular technological options (Winner, 1977). Those enjoying the greatest influence in a technological system at any given point in time, therefore, can invest this influence in building up 'momentum' along those pathways that most favour their own sectoral interests.

This widely acknowledged general phenomenon is nowhere better documented or understood than in the energy sector. In fact, it was a forensic study of the emergence of centralised electricity supply itself (Hughes, 1983) that provided the classic case for explaining how successful technological systems can (indeed must) acquire their own 'momentum' - largely independent of wider social and political influences. Without an appreciation of these important ways in which the development of technological transitions are actively 'constructed', Thomas Edison would arguably never have built the electricity system as we recognise it today. Nor, for that matter, would any other contemporary aspiring entrepreneurial 'system builder', whether focused on carbon sequestration, nuclear power or clean energy services, be likely to enjoy much success.

These general features of the dynamics of technology change are a matter of broad agreement between pretty much every discipline concerned with the study of innovation. Just as none of this is properly controversial, so none of it is necessarily negative. The channelling of technology by these kinds of processes of 'lock-in' and 'momentum' is an essential element in allowing us to achieve any kind of deliberate transformation (Smith and Stirling, 2007).

Just as electricity grids themselves, and later hydroelectricity and nuclear power, required enormous advance investments and long-term public subsidies in order to establish them, so any large-scale shift to renewable energy and distributed electricity infrastructures will require similar public support and investment. If this is the preferred pathway, massive upfront investments are needed in intelligent metering, information systems to back up energy service contracting, subsidies to the construction of advanced efficiency features in buildings, and volume production of small-scale supply units - such as photovoltaic arrays - for integration into new structures (Patterson, 1999). But such investments are only attractive if our expectations are centred on a transition towards this kind of energy future. If not, then some other trajectory will require similar measures to acquire momentum and lock-in instead.

A particular challenge in envisaging this kind of radical change, in energy as elsewhere, is that the most potentially transformative technologies typically arise outside the incumbent system. One relatively recent instance of this is the sustained massive military investments in jet aero-engines. Over a period of decades, this incubated formidable new integrations of advanced thermo- and fluid dynamics and cutting edge materials, design techniques and manufacturing procedures. These were then fortuitously applicable later to modern high-efficiency, low-emission combined-cycle gas power turbines (Watson, 2001). In their turn, the flexibility of these new plants makes them an excellent complement to intermittent renewable sources.

A similar picture is found in the nurturing by Danish agricultural equipment manufacturers of successful, small-scale wind turbine designs. Worldwide, the electricity industry focused its own tentative early wind power experiments of the late 1970s and 80s on gigantic machines. These led to expensive, unreliable and, ultimately, disappointing outcomes. Meanwhile, the relatively underfunded Danish outsiders gradually learned and progressively scaled up until they reached a world leadership position in producing the efficient reliable wind turbines of today. Ironically, in the new generation of giant offshore turbines, these now outmatch even the scale of the early industry leviathans, which they long ago eclipsed in performance (Karnoe and Garud, 1998).

In both the above cases, then, technologies that were marginalised by mainstream innovation in the energy system itself have nonetheless become major success stories in that very same system. But this has only been possible because they were able to acquire some measure of momentum in protected niches outside the system. Either way, the pathways to success required tolerance for a diversity of innovation trajectories and a willingness by the incumbent system to be flexible and to adapt its own practices when a superior technology developed on the outside. This in turn, requires a level of humility, openness and responsiveness on the part of those in leadership positions in the governance of energy systems. We will return to this implication in a moment.

For now, the point is that all the preceding examples show how the consequences of lock-in and momentum depend on context and perspective. The crucial message is, that at any given point in time, there typically exist many more potentially viable pathways for technology than can actually be followed. Whatever pathway is supported, it is only through processes of 'lock-in' and 'momentum' that advocates can hope that their favoured commitments may come to dominate unfolding futures. Whether this is positive or negative depends on which pathway is supported.

There are circumstances where the consequences of momentum and lock-in do become more unequivocally negative, however. This is where the narrow formative influences conditioning a particular technological trajectory can clearly be recognised as being detached from widely agreed features of the public interest. Of course this is often a matter of opinion. It is not contentious to note, however, that the persistently poor levels of energy performance experienced in modern road vehicles, building stock and household appliances is in part due to processes of 'lock-in' in the associated energy systems around the interests of fuel and equipment suppliers. To configure market institutions instead around the provision of 'energy services', better to reflect the interests of energy users, requires significant changes to electricity tariffs, product standards, planning regulations and a range of other aspects. Emissions trading arrangements could also help to amplify the influence of user interests (Sorrell and Skea, 1999). There is little doubt that wider public interests in efficient energy use would be better served if the established momentum of energy markets and institutions could be shifted to harness the full potential of these organisational innovations.

History shows, however, that it cannot be assumed that governments (of any stripe) will necessarily fulfil the role of effective champions of consensual aspects of public interest. All too often this responsibility can be compromised by a vulnerability to be captured by narrower sectoral interests. In the nuclear field, advocates and critics alike recognise that the momentum acquired in some countries (including the UK) by the civilian nuclear reprocessing industry in the 1960s and 70s undermined both the public interest and that of the nuclear power industry itself. Reprocessing is now generally acknowledged to have significantly increased the cost of nuclear power, multiplied the waste management problem and amplified public opposition based on pollution, safety and weapons proliferation concerns. Yet the UK government and electricity industry alike persisted for three decades in strongly defending this technology (which neither now advocates for the future) (Walker, 2000). In the energy sector, as elsewhere, then, it can be seen as a rule of thumb that the more powerful the associated political or institutional interests, and the more detached they are from wider public scrutiny and debate, the more likely it is that the effects of 'momentum' will be negative rather than positive.

This leads on to a central message of this book: a theme that emerges repeatedly from various aspects of the analysis. The challenge of achieving a transition to sustainable energy is not a matter of slavishly following some particular set of technical imperatives or political preferences, as if there were no alternatives. This is unfortunately sometimes the picture presented, both by those in powerful leadership positions and by more marginal pressure groups alike. As is usually the case in the exciting history of human innovation, the truth is that we really face a rather different challenge: one of rich and bewildering choice. A voluminous specialist literature shows that a variety of quite radically different options are open, each presenting technically (and potentially economically) viable pathways: large-scale infrastructures for carbon sequestration; fleets of 'new-generation' nuclear power stations; massive centralised forms of renewable energy from tides, offshore resources and biofuels; new continent-scale infrastructures for production and distribution of hydrogen as an energy carrier; and revolutionary moves towards small-scale distributed energy and energy service arrangements, integrated into our built environment.

Each broad pathway can be combined with others, and includes a diversity of subordinate variants. The dynamics of momentum and lock-in mean that we cannot fully realise the potential of all of these trajectories at the same time, but any large-scale future transition must involve a number of these strands, woven tightly together. Indeed, there are great benefits in deliberately fostering a judicious diversity of parallel options. Diversity can help us accommodate divergent social values and interests, be more sensitive to local context, hedge against persistent uncertainties, militate against lock-in and foster further productive innovation. But the economics of technology mean that diversity is rarely a free lunch. And many of the alternatives that currently present themselves do not work easily together. It is for this reason that crucial choices need to be made. These are not about some individual 'magic bullet' technology or policy, but about the ways in which we prioritise the contending underlying social values and expectations. The richness and intractability of the choice we face means that we can still maintain ample diversity, even if certain high profile options are entirely excluded (Stirling, 2007).

There is one final point on which all might agree, irrespective of any underlying values or interests. This is the importance of avoiding being paralysed by this momentous prospect of choice. It was noted at the beginning of this Afterword, that, for better or worse, the coming energy transition must take effect over the course of a single human lifetime. Yet our existing patterns of energy use are embedded in obdurate social institutions and practices and hard-wired in persistent physical infrastructures, whose lifespans are barely less extensive. The buildings, factories, mines, gas fields, refineries, power plants, distribution systems and transport networks that are currently being built, will persist in use for many decades. In retrospect then, the crucial determining commitments are already being made right now, in thousands of decisions at the growing margins of our existing energy systems (Mitchell, 2007).

I argued earlier that now is a unique time in history. Rather than allowing progress to unfold blindly as in numerous previous technological transformations, we have undertaken the unprecedented challenge of deliberately steering the direction of the next great energy transition. This means opening up a multitude of apparently closed technical decisions and asserting a wider diversity of public values and interests. Only in this way can we be sure of overcoming the negative effects of lock-in, and acquire a more positive momentum. Those in power in energy systems now require a daunting level of commitment to transparency, participation and flexibility. The rest of us require a willingness to become engaged, to express our own visions and values self-confidently, and tolerantly to accept a plurality of others. Most of all, for everyone, it means avoiding intimidation: by over-assertive expertise, by narrow vested interests, by counsels of despair over a lack of alternatives and by disabling apocalyptic fears.

This Afterword began with a series of pressing policy questions. To an increasing number of specialists the right answers, and the corresponding long-run direction of travel, appear all too clear. An analogy that appeals to me is that of the move from hunter-gathering through slash and burn to the sustainable cultivation of food. This is widely seen as the single most important step in the evolution of our contemporary industrial societies. I believe the coming transition towards the 'domestication' of the world's ambient energy will come to be viewed as a 'step jump' of the same order. Just as our ancestors helped plunder to extinction the great megafaunas of the Pleistocene (Ward, 1997), so are we now unthinkingly exhausting the earth's reserves of fossil and fissile fuels - and its capacity to absorb their ecologically toxic products. As with the rise of mixed farming and crop rotation in order to produce food, we need to learn to harness our knowledge of world energy flows in more subtle, integrated and mature ways.

It is clear from a voluminous international literature that there is no technical or physical reason why the energy requirements of a much more populous and contented world could not be fully provided by maintaining a sustainable equilibrium with the natural flows of renewable energy in which we are immersed (World Energy Council, 1994; Grubb, 1997; WEA, 2000; Soerenson, 2000; de Vries et al., 2007). What is true for the world as a whole is even more so for a country like the UK -enjoying an almost uniquely rich endowment of renewable resources (PIU, 2001; PIU, 2002; DTI, 2003c; 2006c). We already have the basic technologies and techniques to achieve this. The great network transitions of the past - from canals, through railways, roads, telecommunications and electricity itself, all show what can be achieved with the right imagination, leadership and commitment. None of these great innovative steps of the past were achieved by relying on previously incumbent vested interests. With the human genius for innovation, there is no reason why we could not acquire a momentum down a path that leads this way. All that stands in our way is the equally human proclivity for inertia.

That is one vision of the path to follow. It is a crucial quality of this book, however, that this is not the only possible interpretation. This is the nature of the real political choices that we face. The present book makes practical recommendations, but avoids prescribing formulaic answers. Ultimately, the authors have quite rightly left it up to readers to make up their own minds while offering an unusually balanced, authoritative and wide-ranging map of the ways in which the different elements fit together. In the process, they have revealed fascinating interactions between often highly inaccessible expert debates in economics, sociology and politics and relate these directly to topical current controversies over energy strategy and related areas of environment and technology policy. In the end, it is only through this kind of more self-confident and clear-eyed public debate - and rigorous democratic accountability - that we can hope to identify the most robust and trustworthy pathways towards a truly sustainable energy future.

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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