The Myth of Energy Breakthroughs

 |  Includes: GEX, NLR
by: Gregor Macdonald

Renewed belief in the concept of Energy Breakthrough seems resurgent these days, as a versatile scientist now helms the Department of Energy, and famous people such as Bill Gates invoke the need (and thus our quest) for energy miracles. The notion of a technological breakthrough was also, unsurprisingly, at play this weekend when I attended the MIT Energy Conference. And of course, in February, the world was treated to the roll out of Bloom Energy’s Bloom Box.

The problem with energy breakthroughs is that they actually require a Built Environment breakthrough. Energy transition, or the notion of disruptive energy technologies, are affairs that occur at the interface between an energy-source, energy-tools, and the built environment. I suppose coal was a kind of breakthrough for early 18th century (and wood-based) England but the barrier to coal adoption was that a lot of England’s built environment was running on wood. You see, new energy sources or new energy technologies don’t distribute easily, or quickly, through the built environment.

It’s common among those who sell the idea of energy breakthrough to invoke electronic or digital adoption narratives. Breakthroughs in medicine, in electronic networks, and in other intellectual achievement distribute more easily upon existing systems. This is why I continue to believe that many (not all) in Cleantech Venture don't really understand the scale of our energy problem. Or, having understood the scale of our energy problem, many apply adoption pathways learned from other systems–that simply don’t translate to energy, and the built environment.

Let’s take a look at a 40 year chart (click to enlarge) of one of humankind’s oldest energy sources, Hydro energy, compared to use of Nuclear energy. It’s understandable that most would have considered nuclear power the epitome of energy breakthough, when first concieved. And, compared to hydro power, the chart seems to indicate a fast adoption of nuclear power–through the world’s built environment:

The disappointment comes, however, upon learning that Nuclear power still only provides a little more than 5.00% of the world’s primary energy. Hydro provides over 6.00%–thus eclipsing Nuclear after all these decades. No doubt, many will point to political and policy choices as barriers to adoption of nuclear. But, those political and policy factors are a direct outgrowth of nuclear’s enormous expense, time-to-completion, and safety costs. The barriers to nuclear power adoption relate more to the fact that it is not an energy breakthrough at all, in the sense that it did not easily dislocate coal, oil, or natural gas. Nuclear power neither undercut easily the cost of current energy sources, nor did it offer a way to easily transform existing energy sources to the built environment. This is why in the current debate between Amory Lovins and Stuart Brand (an excellent and friendly debate), I take the side of Lovins–who thinks we missed our date with destiny in nuclear, and that a grand pursuit of nuclear no longer makes sense.

I intend to write more this week on my experience at the (very fun) MIT Energy Conference, but the question one should ask all those who claim to be working on energy breakthroughs is how, in terms of engineering, time, and energy-cost, their idea will distribute through the current built environment.