Going on from last week let's start with Infrastructure and the meta-costs of technology. Here the Archdruid uses system costs to refer to costs needed to apply the energy resource,the meta costs include this and the necessary social/cultural structures required to use the technologies (such as rampant consumerism or the belief in progress). To properly use renewable energy in an eco-technic society, due both to the differing energy distributions and the different social/cultural structures, would require a different infrastructure set to what we have now, though it could easily share many basic components and structures, and that would take time, resources and energy to both maintain it and create it. It would also involve much more decentralized economies and probably polities as well. So the best strategy is to use as much of the current infrastructure as you can while slowly developing the alternate infrastructure that will exist in the future to reduce the transition costs.
That's part of the reason I thing the Zero Carbon Australia plan is a good first step, it uses most of current infrastructure while
implementing some of the changes needed. It isn't the end of the process, only
the start. Yes, the electricity grid was incredibly expensive to build
and that needs to be accounted for the true cost of the project, but the
electricity grid is already there and can be put to use now. Rebuilding
our entire infrastructure from scratch is both impossible and stupid,
better is to slowly modify the existing infrastructure and build up the
new components needed while scrapping what's not needed over time. The more the meta-costs are spread over time, the
cheaper it is each year, the more can go to the production side and the
less dramatic the changes are, likely leading to less resistance to the transition. All those plans to switch over to renewables, yes they are often quoted unrealistically and compared to past examples, but the advantage now is that most of the infrastructure is already in place and doesn't have to be built from scratch, like railways (for coal use) were, thus reducing both costs and time.
differing scales that societies operate on is especially important to
energy use and distribution. The energy use of someones day to day life
is different from the energy use used to create the structures necessary for
him to live that daily life and that is again different for the energy
use a society uses to keep itself functioning. Peasant farmers normally
don't smelt their own ore and use it to make tools, city dwellers often
don't make many of the artifacts/resources they use and infrastructure
is similar, those that benefit often don't make /maintain their infrastructure or tools.
The energy use and distribution for the manufacturing scale is
different than the energy use in the peasants daily life. What about the
energy use of a state and its armies, its a very different pattern than
the daily life of a peasant, much more of a pulse compared to the steady inputs of the former.
We need to tailor renewable energy usage to these different
scales and patterns, and tailor these scales to renewable energy. Solar
hot water, solar cooking and food can provide the majority of daily
energy use but they can't be used in manufacturing. Large windmills,
charcoal production, solar furnaces aren't so useful in daily life, but
they can provide the energy used to manufacture stuff, including solar
cookers or hot water systems which are useful in daily life. States and armies would use stored energy, like biofuels, and use them every now and then (like during wars or during large infrastructure projects). These
different scales will use/require different infrastructures and
technologies, the pipe system of a house or a city, a micro-grid,
national grid or only the wiring in a single building and so on, but there's significant overlap. This is
the main problem with the Zero Carbon plan, not a lot of local
actions or small scale changes, but its understandable as to why. They
should just add support to local renewable energy ideas and projects at
this stage of the plan, saying any improvements there are extra. Other
actions and plans are better suited to the local level.
From these changes a variety of differences would appear. A redistribution of wealth to different sectors, similar to the concurrent change to organic agriculture, along with the consequent changes to employment, education and transport such changes bring. Along with this, the values of the general population would begin to shift (its a process that happens over generations and so would be fairly hard to detect accurately), so they'd become more appropriate to the new economic enviroment. A similar process happens to the idea of courage in battle when technology changes, same process different context (also a bit slower). Transport routes will change, some will come into being while others die or experience a resurgence while
others decrease or increase in relative importance and from this a
large range of economic changes will occur. And so on, Societies will
change in response to their enviroment and its various industries. The
current consumer culture is nonviable on the long run, so something else
will appear to take its place.
technologies is related to how renewables develop but lets look at them
first. The supporting technologies for fossil fuels are different that
those of renewables, storage is one of the best examples so we'll look
at that. Storage for fossil fuels involves storing them in their natural state
either as a gas, liquid or solid but most importantly you can simply leave
them like that and burn them when you want to. Renewables on the other
hand generally (this is not true for wood or food to some extent) have
to be stored either as potential energy (say in a battery) or in a
different form than what they come in. I'll use electricity storage, but heat and mechanical storage are in a similar position. There
is no point developing large scale electricity storage when you use
fossil fuels, its easier to simply leave them in their extracted form
and burn when necessary, but that option isn't available for renewables
(except Hydro). The exact layout and shape of the electricity grid reflects this.
So the technologies to store electricity on a large
scale are only being developed about now, see this salt water battery or storing it as liquid oxygen.
The advantage of the last one is if you have the storage next to a
factory that produces heat, you can use that heat to raise the engines
temperature to about 100°C and in effect reuse
the waste heat to increase efficiency. Both of those technologies can be
implemented with current technology, air compression is over 50 years
old and most chem labs have the equipment, they just haven't been
developed because there isn't any point if your using fossil fuels.
That's another reason to slowly change our infrastructure, we don't know
what will be useful or necessary yet and we need to let the potential technologies develop first before choosing what infrastructure to build/modify.
development of renewable technologies is also important and there are
several categories involved. Some technologies are mature and unlikely
to change greatly, solar hot water and hydro are good examples, without a revolutionary change. Other
technologies are still being developed and may or may not take off Vibro-wind Piezoelectric, wind lens (which can purportedly double or triple a turbines output) or solar furnaces
for example. Notice how solar furnaces and concentrated solar thermal
(CST) use the same underlying technology, reflective panels. That would
be the way to use the organic change of societies over time, create the
manufacturing capabilities for the reflective panels for CST as it makes
sense as the first step, and then use that same capabilities to build
solar furnaces and other such devices later on.
Quite a few of the basic
components/technologies that are used in the large scale renewable
technologies are equally viable on smaller scales or for direct use and vis versa. See
the use of salt heat storage here,
salt heat storage is also used for the big CST plants. Then there's how
renewables are being deployed now and why. At the moment the big push
is for electricity generation, even though chances are direct use is
better, but there is a logical reason for that push and many of the technologies being developed will still be useful later on.
a way that the salt heat storage could be used to solarize a common
historical feature of urban life. Take away and fast food is often seen
as a feature of modern industrial civilization, when it is in fact as
old as city life (and sometimes village life) itself. A significant
portion of city dwellers cooking at all is actually unique to modern
Industrial civilization. There was 1 Thermopolium, effectively a Roman fast food restaurant,
per 60 residents in Pompeii alongside tavernas and such, while the ancient equivalent of a drive
through window, for travelers on the road, probably came into being in
ancient Persia. Things similar to restaurants are also incredibly
ancient and sometimes even villages had their equivalent, and for the
same economic reasons this is likely to be true in the future. A kitchen is expensive,
so is fuel and in most historical settings the majority of urban
dwellers can't afford them anyway and even if they could, its often not
worth it for them to take the time and expense to cook. And so takeout, taverns and restaurants flourish. The
only question is since firewood is likely to be a scarce resource, how
can we adapt these features of urban (as in towns upward) life to a post
Overshoot world. Also just to clarify what counts here, its cafes,
restaurants (of various sizes), take outs, fast food franchises, taverns, inns and
street vendors. Below is one idea.
Solar cookers are
(in the right context) a wonderful technology, with only sunlight as an
input they can cook food, which saves a great deal of fuel. However they
have several short comings, they require sunlight (which is intermittent and time restricted),
conventional designs have a limited amount they can cook at once and
they're often designed for a family or individual use. But if we have an
entire restaurant to work with and use salt (or another type of) heat
storage we can remove those shortcomings. Instead of focusing the
sunlight onto a cooking surface, use the roof of the restaurant to
collect sunlight that either makes steam or heats the salt. Ovens would
have a cavity between the heavily insulated casing and the inside in
which heat can be pumped from the storage and the stoves would work by
using the stored heat to heat a hotplate.
The system would often (doesn't have to be, but it would help)
be built into the building itself and while it would work on the same
principles as most solar cookers, it wouldn't look and behave as current
models. The heat storage can be quite large, lets say its in the
basement, and would optimally store a few days to a weeks worth of heat and have a backup in the form of the ability to burn wood or charcoal to add to the heat.
That's a likely way that renewable energy would be used in the future
and in the process make urban life that much more livable than
otherwise. The main economic variable will be if its cheaper
to build solar powered restaurants, cafes or potentially street vendors
than for most urban dwellers to have their own kitchen as well as the efficiency of scale for heat storage.I'm currently writing a basic technical (first time I've written one) paper outlining the problem and solution above for the Arhcdruid's contest (post it next week).
How Industrial societies are currently implementing renewable energy is also important, they are simply adding them to current energy sources. Replacement of some fossil fuel use is happening, bio-fuels are the best example of that process through solar hot water and cookers also count. If you have a growing economy (which we had until just recently) then if your adding a new energy source, then it makes sense to simply add it to whatever energy form is growing in use (that's currently electricity) instead of replacing an established energy form. Then their's the fact that quite a few industries use electricity because of its various advantages and that at the moment only oil is stagnating. Since its a transport fuel, which is hard to replace with renewables, the replacement will again take longer while replacing coal and natural gas is relatively easy.
The effect of this strategy is that the direct use of renewable energy as heat or mechanical won't be pursued in all but a handful of cases, even through it makes more sense as a starting point. Mind you, the direct use of renewables will increase, but again it will happen over time as our societies change. Also the ideology/religion of progress partly drives this trend, after all from the perspective of progress electricity is the way of the future, in Lewis Mumford's words towards the 'neo-technic' future. Once fossil fuels start declining noticeably (rather than the slow decline/stagnation happening now) and more basic energy needs need to be filled by alternatives, the direct use of renewables should see a noticeable uptick.
energy is not a single thing and its a complex reality. And the process
of getting from where we are now to the future endpoint is not a simple
process that follows a linear path towards a set goal. It will be an
organic process as new technologies are implemented, some technologies disappear, certain resources
run short, strategies are tried out and so on. Figuring out how to get
from step to step with the resources at hand and with the current limitations
is the first goal, hence using electricity since the grid is already
there and therefor allowing time for the support technologies to
develop, also here in Australia our grid is roughly 80-90% efficiency (in America its 30%, due to distance, bad maintenance and old equipment). Later on something else will be tried and so on. The end goal
of a fully renewable society that is tailored to the particular traits
of whatever renewables are available is not going to be achieved for the
next few centuries. Few of the technologies or technical tricks of such a society could currently exist now, they are still being developed or yet to be conceived of. Saying here is the endpoint so lets build that isn't helpful, figuring out a path that gets us there is.