Articles from 2013
Changes are everywhere else, why not in energy thinking?
- Written by Nick Grealy
- Published: 27 September 2013
As the shale revolution is making clear each passing day, it is indeed changing everything, and energy will continue to be one of the worlds’s largest industries and most widely traded commodities for years to come. But change is endemic these days, and three recent trends spotlight how simultaneous revolutions are accelerating in IT, manufacturing and transportation.
The macro implications for energy use spill over between sectors, but the trend is clear. Technology is a simultaneous revolution that portends both increasing energy production and declining energy consumption. This, in the overused phrase, truly does change everything, and it starts with technology.
The Internet of Things is a set of technologies that incorporates the physical world into the virtual one through networks of electronic sensors and devices connected to computers.
...The more intimate our relationship with the wired world, the greater the possibilities for harnessing data to make life better. And it is hard to argue that these changes will not be disruptive -- that is, it will have a profound, widespread, and transformative impact on how we live and work. All told, the estimated economic value of these technologies is in the trillions of dollars.
The Internet of Things, makes it possible to monitor and control the location, condition, and behavior of objects, machinery, and devices through networks.
Monitoring everything, is by definition efficient, in time, money and energy. I’m often struck how those who bemoan we use too much energy seem to be among the strongest deniers that the opposite trend is taking place. According to the new reactionary world view, an increase in population leads to an inevitable increase in energy, or any increase in efficiency leads to a increasing it somewhere else, a perspective dating back to the steam age. Jevon’s Paradox, a still remarkably popular, if outdated, central tenet of peak oil theory.
The Jevons Paradox has been the elephant in energy efficiency's room since energy efficiency was in diapers. It casts a gloomy shadow over the industry, raises doubts about the sanctity of our mission, and the fact that it exists at all is, frankly, kind of a drag.
But here's the thing: energy efficiency is all grown up now, and Jevons is dead. It's Hans Castorp's grandfather-on-the-wall in The Magic Mountain—archaic, mysterious, and useless. Time to move on.
Time to literally move on, or simply to get out more often, because significant changes in energy consumption of transportation are possible. For once, I’m not talking about natural gas powered trains and boats and even planes, and of course buses, trucks and taxicabs, but the next big thing already almost here: Self Driving Cars
Nissan has pledged to launch a car that can drive itself by 2020, throwing down the gauntlet to a host of carmaking rivals and industry newcomers such as Google.
Toscan Bennett, vice-president of product planning at Volvo Cars, which has developed technologies such as automatic braking, pedestrian detection and self-parking, says: “Today’s drivers are ready for autonomy ... For safety, fuel economy, less congestion, freedom, comfort and convenience.”
But he adds: “Autonomous driving is not going to be a Big Bang, it’s going to be a series of little steps.”
Autonomous driving is indeed going to be a series of steps, but it does provide some serious outside the box, or in this case outside the garage or parking space thinking.
The majority of drivers, simply want to go from A to B. Autonomous, self driving vehicles could do so efficiently. And safely.
The company’s vision to have no one killed or seriously injured by 2020 in a new Volvo doesn’t seem that far fetched after all
But back to efficiency, an inevitable side-product of Google’s recent purchase of Uber fits with a driverless app future:
That is where Uber comes in. While there are multiple car sharing models, including ventures Relay Rides and Zipcars (in which Big Auto companies are participating), Uber is the farthest along in developing a simple interface and business model that fits perfectly with the deployment of driverless cars.
With Uber, passengers specify pickup and drop-off points and the car comes to them. Pricing, payment and verification is already handled. When the technology is ready, driverless cars can begin as simply another car-type option from which Uber users can choose.
If this all sounds like the science fiction techno solution to climate change and energy that many greens, increasingly revealing themselves as reactionary fuddy-duddy defenders of the status quo rather than the idealistic greens of their youth, reject as unrealistic, it’s no more far fetched than either the shale revolution was ten years ago or the notion that we can have 100% renewable future is today.
But back to earth, and a recent NY Times piece on the re-shoring, not of steel or chemicals, but the textile industry, shows the potential, and importance of energy. A quick industrial history lesson would reveal that the Industrial Revolution started with the mechanizing of wool, cotton and the garment industry. That in turn sped innovation in hydro and then coal power to produce electricity. New technology is creating a new range of robots that allow the return of an industry to a former stronghold of the US textile industry:
Just as the Carolinas benefited when manufacturing migrated first from the Cottonopolises of England to the mill towns of New England and then to here, where labor was even cheaper, they suffered in the 1990s when the textile industry mostly left the United States.
It headed to China, India, Mexico — wherever people would spool, spin and sew for a few dollars or less a day. Which is why what is happening at the old Wellstone spinning plant is so remarkable.
I’ll leave aside the societal impacts of robots replacing third world workers, who won’t even soon then have an option of emigrating to the developed world to become cab drivers. For now, the trend of a re-shoring of the rag trade, means a change in the importance of a key non-labour input:
But truth be told, labor is not a big ingredient in the manufacturing uptick in the United States, textiles or otherwise. Indeed, the absence of high-paid American workers in the new factories has made the revival possible.
“Most of our costs are power-related,” said Dan Nation, a senior Parkdale executive
Which leads us to the emergence of the new energy revolution and the lower cost and locally secure power it can provide, in no small part due to the use of technology and raw computing power in shale exploration.
Thanks to the multi-decade gap between energy shifts, the energy industry lends itself to silo thinking that until recently has been able to ignore the outside world. Those days are not yet gone, but are going. Whether the days are better or worse, they’re going and the sooner the new reactionary Green Tea Party shale deniers accept this, the better.