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Keeping the lights on

Walt Patterson

Published 2007


Unpublished review February 2008


Energy is the central environmental issue. Think back to the old physics definition: energy is 'the capacity to do work' and then think of how much 'work' get done in the modern world: all the gizmos and gadgets, the travel, the buildings, the multitude of consumer products, the effortless comfort. Unfortunately, the way that we channel energy to create this profusion is creating the problem of climate change - a problem that we ought to take very seriously indeed. Even more unfortunately, the demand for all the things our present energy system provides is increasing. The situation really does look challenging.

Walt Patterson is an old green-energy warrior. Trained as a nuclear physicist, he was one of the generation of 1970's environmentalists and now works as an energy analyst for Chatham House. He says that energy policy needs to be rethought from the bottom up.

If we were designing an energy system from scratch, says Patterson, we would not come up with a scheme of big, inflexible, highly centralised generators, linked by a wasteful distribution system. This system is a consequence of historical development. Edison started by selling his cutomers a service - illumination - rather than electricity as such, but this soon changed:

The single most effective deterrent for improving the efficiency of electricity systems is the electricity meter ... if what you are selling is electric light, you want the whole system to be as efficient as possible. If ... you are selling units of electricity ... someone using less effficient lamps has to buy more electricity ... From the point of view of you, the seller, inefficiency on the customer's premises is good for your business

To think about electricity as a kind of fuel is fundamentally misconceived. It isn't a commodity that can be shunted around and stored until needed, it is a process. A better way is to generate it where needed, tapping into sunshine, water, wind. Patterson does not like the term 'renewable' preferring 'ambient energy' because this points to the fact that we are surrounded by natural energy flows - we swim in the stuff. What we need to promote is "infrastructure energy". In practical terms this means lots more building integrated photovoltaics, aided by intelligent architecture, co-generation, fuel cells. Too expensive? Cost calculations always involve assumptions and perhaps conventional economic thinking has made inappropriate ones - gas is cheap only if the country with the gasfields is friendly, but sunshine will always be free.

Yes, but how do we get there from here? Patterson admits there is no simple prescription but urges that change is not impossible. (For example, privatization had unexpected consequences. It rewarded short-term thinking but this in turn encouraged a slight move away from Big and Central.

Changing the way we think about electricity will affect profoundly the decisions we take henceforth. Traditional electricity assumes centralized decisions. Innovative electricty does not. If many participants with many agendas make their own decisions, the effect may be untidy but dramatic

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