Energy sliders

Blockchain tech is a big thing. But it’s not the Next Big Thing. No. That title belongs to energy. You thought that the plane or the car remade the world? You thought systems of mass production and globalisation impacted the planet? Do you think that the internet started a worldwide revolution? Oh boy. None of these things will compare to the impact a solution to the problem of energy will have.

Imagine a future where energy is clean and its supply is inexhaustible. What would travel look like in such a world? What about the world of work? How about recreation? What about education, healthcare, and other societal welfare systems? What about finance? If energy is abundant the very definition of wealth changes, as do our aspirations, ambitions and values.

Of course, we’re a long way off such a state of affairs—in fact, we can’t even be sure that there is a way to extract the energy we demand without doing untold harm to ourselves and the planet. A casual glance over the most prominent energy sources right now illustrates this.

Oil is a fossil fuel, and thus its supply is limited and its extraction is costly—economically and socially. Natural gas is similarly difficult. But what about “clean” energy? Hydroelectric power—which transforms the kinetic energy of bodies of water—has limitations. Such projects involve relocating thousands of people and the projects themselves are perfect opportunities for political corruption. Windpower via turbines is struggling to put a dent in our global energy demands, and besides, the turbines themselves have a short lifespan. And the tech that allows us to convert the energy of the sun directly—like photovoltaic panels—only functions in certain climates, and even then it isn’t dramatically efficient. Nuclear energy is yet another option but there are extreme tail risks associated with it and an incredibly negative cultural perception of such concepts.

I’ve picked most of this up from a cursory reading about the past, present and future of energy. And whilst I’ve been reading about it, I’ve been struggling to find a frame to help me see the future in terms of energy. Statistics about efficiency of conversion and the universal units used to measure energy output don’t resonate. I need a better way of looking into the fog of the future. And after writing “The power of sliders” I found it.

In a newsletter entitled Jonathan Livingston Corporation, Venkatesh Rao describes two approaches to business. You can solve for money or solve for aliveness. He goes on to say:

“23/ Three better-than-money motivators for solving business problems are: technology, people, and scale. When you focus on one of these, it’s not that you don’t want to make gobs of money, but that it’s a secondary consideration. You’d rather go bust than make it the primary consideration.

24/ Technology: when technology is the driving motivation for solving a business problem, the renewable payoff loop comes from the satisfaction of borderline absurd curiosities. Will it waffle? mindset driven by hunches and raw curiosity about whether something can work. The thrill of watching a new kind of machine come alive.

25/ People: Can people (both as employees and customers) be made to come alive/thrive instead of slouching through life like dispirited zombies? There is something addictive about figuring out problems in ways where you solve for “people aliveness”. Beneath anodyne buzzwords like “customer delight” or “employee engagement” there is this real thing you can solve for.

26/ Finally, scale in a general sense. Can something be made bigger, smaller, cheaper, more centralised, more decentralised, more/less automated? The payoff here is activating/deactivating a constraint, and rewriting patterns of abundance/scarcity by turning a knob to some extreme limit.”

Applied to energy and converted to sliders, the above looks something like this:

energy Future 2

The “scale” slider moves from local solutions on the left to global solutions on the right. The “people” scale has a positive and negative aspect. It either harms a few or harms many, and it either benefits a few or benefits many. The “tech” scale indicates something simple—like a wheelbarrow—or something terribly complex—like a spaceship. Now, the question is, “Where does our current buffet of energy tech fall on these sliders?”

A dynamo found on touring bicycles generates electricity with every turn of the bicycle’s wheels. The generated electricity is typically used to power the bicycle’s lights or to charge devices like phones when the rider is in remote locations. If we were to plot it on the scales it would be classed as local-scale, as benefiting the rider alone at the expense of his own effort, and as a relatively simple technology.

The use of oil-derived energy, on the other hand, is very different. It’s a global-scale operation. It benefits many people, some extraordinarily, but it also has exorbitant costs—there is a finite amount of oil in the ground after all. And it requires remarkably complex technology, all the way from search to refinement to end use.

Between the extremes of a bicycle dynamo and crude oil production there’s more traditional energy generation schemes. Waterwheels are an example. Their use benefited only the immediate area—a town or village, for instance. They helped the townspeople without imposing any serious cost, and compared to modern technology they were simple things.

But what about energy production in the future? Even if I were technically involved in energy production, I wouldn’t be able to make detailed predictions. Someone like Vaclav Smil—considered a worldwide authority on energy—abstains from the game of forecasting. So, in lieu of specific forecasts, allow me to propose something vague.

The future of energy has two possible directions (which may actually both end up occurring simultaneously) The first is an exaggeration of the current energy solutions we rely on now. Energy’s future will be a truly global affair, requiring international co-ordination and worldwide pooling of tangible and intangible resources. It will benefit many but also be costly to many. And it will be dependent upon the most bleeding edge technologies from many different domains. Or, the future of energy will swing the other way. It will be small scale, local, ubiquitous, benefit a tiny amount, impose costs on a small few, and rely on simple and robust technology.

I suppose the two options are really about centralisation and decentralisation. Either energy production will be centralised to benefit the globe, or it’ll be decentralised and small units and communities will be given the tools to generate and utilise their own energy.

The future of energy will either be an increasingly global interdependency, a local self-reliance, or a curious mixture of both.