TITOLO: Transition

WRITTEN BY: Lorenzo Matteoli

DATE: April 4th, 2008

The energy transition: where are we now.
Lorenzo Matteoli

The basic rules for energy transition revolve around three pillars:
A. Eliminate waste (i.e. upgrading technologies, controls, boosting efficiencies of 1st and 2nd order)
B. Save energy (i.e. changing behavioural paradigm of users, lowering temperatures, putting on a sweater)
C. Input alternative energy
Energy and environmental health of a post-industrial society is a multigenerational problem. Unfortunately we must operate within an economic paradigm that does not take into account environmental costs, either present or future. The founding fathers of modern economy (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Leon Walras, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes) thought environmental and energy resources were unlimited.

The price of oil per barrel today US$106.23 (April 4th, 2008) may seem very high but it is not. In fact, the purchasing power of US$30 in 1973 would today (2008) be approximately US$144.00 (Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson).

Comment: the price of the Barrel following the Big Financial Crisis after a peak of US$ 149.00 in July 2008 plummeted to US$ 72.96 on October 18th 2008, possibly for a backlash of the speculation or for the dim forecast of Chinese demand, even if the price of oil has not been fiercely related to demand for a long time. In fact demand has not significantly changed in the last six months. All the projected futures have to be reviewed after the "black swan" of the financial collapse, but nobody seeems to know in which way (LM October 18th 2008).

After thirty five years of talks on energy, environmental fights and economic, academic challenge, it is disappointing to see that the tools for the “transition” from oil to beyond oil are still far away and that the “transition” is also conceptually and politically terra incognita.
Every once in a while the “hydrogen age” is proposed as a solution without knowing (or willfully neglecting) that to produce one energy unit of hydrogen you need three to four energy units of fossil fuels.
A lot of people believe, or have been encouraged to believe, that nuclear energy will be the ultimate and solution: This is not so. According to the NPC (National Petroleum Council 2007 Report) forecast nuclear energy by 2030 will only be sufficient to cover 5% of the demand, even assuming strong development.
Two centuries ago it took approximately 100 years to shift from coal to oil. The technical revolution for the shift from oil to flowing energies (wind, solar, hydro, ocean thermal and waves) is at least ten times more complex on a system which is at least 100 times larger than the system operating in 1850, with a total population of 5 times the population of 1850. It is true that technology innovation and the tools available today are much more powerful and sophisticated than the tools available in 1850. Nonetheless, the time needed for the shift would not be less than 70 years: three generations – to be on the safe side.

So it is the fossil fuels will carry us beyond the oil age: certainly converted in a different way and at much higher costs.

The culture gap. As in 1973, what is lacking today is “vision”: A city mayor understands transportation, bridges, tunnels, freeways, but pays little attention to environmental and energy strategic investments. Multigenerational energy strategies will not deliver him any electoral advantage. Except for a very few instances, the media are unhelpful with the incompetence of editors and their focus on easy scoops.

Alternative sources.
Wind generated electricity is now commercially competitive with oil or coal-generated electricity. In the last thirty years, wind turbine blades optimization and various design features (self furl) have been streamlined in order to get as close as possible to the theoretical top mechanical efficiency of a wind generator (59%). Electronic inverters brilliantly solve the problem of transforming the wind generated electricity into commercial current with steady frequency and voltage. The grid is used as a storage buffer-system and that will be possible until the wind originated load will exceed a certain percentage of the grid supply.
It is not true that wind generators are environmentaly unfriendly. Wind generators do not kill birds (no more than electric cables, pylons, cars or buildings - in fact less, because birds can detect their movement) and they are not noisy.

Photovoltaic panels that in 1975 had very low efficiencies (3%) are now on the market at a considerably lower price with efficiencies in the range of 15-17%. Energy payback time is 6 to 8 years. With rising costs of electricity and a proper incentive policy there could be a booming market in the next ten years. Both wind generators and photovoltaic have great potential for integration with electric cars. The electric car can be feasible only if recharged with home solar or wind generated electricity: otherwise, the load on the network would be an impossible problem to solve, when electric cars will be running in signifcant numbers. Solar thermal collectors have also made huge progress in terms of cost, durability and efficiency.
Tubular vacuum collectors have efficencies between 60% and 80% within output temperatures of 60°C to 80°C, which means they can more easily be linked to space heat exchangers. Wood or pellets-fed (or multifuel) heaters designed to host hot fluid coming from solar collectors are available on the market. 80% of domestic space heating technologies available today were not available in the eighties and none of the software and hardware for the complex management and fine tuning of solar integrated heating systems was available either.
As far as the energy infrastructure (grid and networks) is concerned, a radical shift has to take place: The systems have been conceived and designed to dispatch energy from power plants to the diffuse galaxy of users. They will have to be changed in order to dispatch energy from the million producers/users to the million producers/users with power plants managing the balancing and compensation task.

A different opinion. With regard to alternative energies (solar thermal, wind-electric, photovoltaic) there are many people who have reservations and point out their quantitative irrelevance and qualitative (power) inadequacy. They also question the impact of the great numbers of wind turbines and the thousands of square kilometers of PHV panels necessary to supply the energy demand of a post industrial country. This is the consistent view of those who accept the present energy/environmental paradigm, without question. However, within a multigenerational strategy over 70 to 100 years the potential for cultural and technological changes cannot be overruled and the issue has to be addressed in a less radical way.

The car is indeed a very special item: so important in the quality of life and lifestyle of the postindustrial societies, such a huge environmental responsibility, such a huge industrial structure for its manufacturing processes and such an important employment opportunity. Second only to the “home”, the car is the dominating feature in the daily schedule of life of the “modern Cros Magnon”. There were 200.000.000 cars in the whole world in 1970. The number was 590.000.000 in 2002, and there may be approximately 650.000.000 today. The number of cars in the year 2030 is anybody’s guess and frightening to contemplate. The map shows the planet mapped against the number of cars in each country . If they average 30.000 km per year, that is 20 trillion km a year, if they burn 10 litres every 100 km, that is 2 trillion litres of fuel per year, that’s 2 billion tons per year etc. This huge fleet is scrapped over a twenty years cycle and substituted with a new fleet within the same time. Which would be 32.5 million cars (plus) every year. This means that in twenty years time (approximately) we could have an environmentally friendly world fleet of cars, starting the shift tomorrow.
Any transition strategy must take the car into account as a very serious problem and design ways and means to:
reduce the number of cars,
reduce the yearly mileage,
reduce the daily trips,
reduce the fuel consumption,
increase overall efficiency,
increase the number of passengers per car
reduce maintenance costs
reduce the weight per unit
increase the average life of the fleet
Jobs and employment must be protected at the same time, as much as possible diversifying the sector and through appropriate and organized interindustry mobility

Some of the points imply design and technology changes; some imply management changes; some of them imply lifestyle changes some imply town planning and logistics rethinking and, possibly, the whole set implies a basic cultural shift.

Small cars, solar electric and hybrid will gradually substitute the present fleet of medium sized sedans. Hybrid electric LPG cars, integrated on Photovolatic decentralized electricity production will systematically substitute present day petrol and diesel fuelled cars. The yearly amount depends on incentives and petrol costs (possibly 10 dollars per liter in 2030). Urban mobility of persons now accounts for approximately 20% of the total conversion in post industraial countries: This should be cut to 8%. The percentage of the average family budget for the car should be kept within 20%. Integration of transportation on depolarized solar (wind or phV) should ease the dispatching and balancing problem of the grid heavily fed by diffused energy production. Smaller cars, ride-sharing and car-sharing (and bikes) should ease the parking problem in congested cities and reduce energy (and time) spent looking for parking spots! Public transportation should become more friendly and more efficient. Buses, minibuses, shared taxicabs, bike-sharing in downtown areas, will allow easier use of city centers compared to the present-day congested traffic situation. Car-sharing, Zip car (http://www.zipcar.com/how/) will be an established institution in modern cities, sponsored, supported and promoted by the public traffic authority as well as ride-sharing (http://www.goloco.org/) and Robin Chase will be acknowledged and revered as the founder of this brilliant system. Cell phones, plus computers, plus logistic software, plus methods to guarantee safety will win the case for easy and safe urban mobility. Goloco is a computer assisted association of users, the software of which solves the logistics (who wants to go where, who is going where, when) and guarantees the friendliness of members and even manages cross compensation and money clearing transactions through Paypal; cyber safe hitchiking.

Teleworking, telecommuting. Millions of hours of driving time or commuting time, millions of fuel and CO2 tons could be spared if using fast computer connection (broadband) all those who could work at home could actually do that.
Video conferences will cut the need for business trips and the associated fun: Big corporations and public institutions will start this relatively soon.

Household management. Cities will not be able to depend on “transplanetary” food supplies and the globalization paradigm will meet some very tough challenges. A local/regional economy will grow again for most of the food necessities.
Packaging styles materials and technologies will change (see Toepfer Law in Germany). Plastic bags will be history and collectors items, we will go back to the good old tough fabric bags of our mothers and grandmothers.

The Italian situation. As the result of a referendum in 1987, Italy decided against nuclear energy. Fundamentally, it was the right decision. A huge capital investment was postponed for more than 20 years; no irreversible constraint was imposed on the economy or the energy system. Unfortunately, that decision should have been supported by a consistent alternative strategy: investment in elimination of waste, energy-saving technologies and, eventually, in alternative energy sources – a path not taken. As a result, the Country is now behind in tackling the energy problem and, under the pressure, the nuclear party is again calling for action. Today, as twenty years ago, nuclear energy is not the solution to the much wider problem. It would still be better to proceed with huge waste-control strategies and energy-saving programs and start a broad programme of alternative sources on the wiser resulting system. Nuclear may be one of them, but, eventually, it may prove unnecessary.
Italy is behind but Italian industries are not: small hydroelectric units, wind generators, photovoltaic panels and solar thermal panels produced by Italian manufacturers are “technology tops” and being exported all over the World. Italian industries in the alternative energy field also supply assistance for the best integration of their products in local contexts for optimal output

I personally think that humans will not be able to set out a transition path towards a sustainable coexistence with the Planet in an acceptable time frame, with the possibile exception of a few privileged regions where climate, geography and local integrated resources combine to make that path easier.
Pessimism does not mean that one has to give up. In fact it is a good reason to face and accept the challenge. To design and to control the ongoing catastrophe could be useful, in any case - to moderate its cruelty on the weaker and more exposed.
For some of us, it is the Utopian dream that makes life’s journey interesting.

Lorenzo Matteoli