Climate change - shifting the effort from generation to efficiency by Peter Judge
Last week I went to a very interesting meeting of solar industry people. Data centers didn’t get a specific look-in: the issue was how to get solar projects funded as the UK government changes its policies around energy generation.
Solar power will get cheaper as the panels get mass produced, but in the early stages, it is not affordable enough to produce the kind of mass market that will really bring prices down. The UK’s solar business has been doing reasonably well - but it seems that the Chinese government has decided that China should own the industry and is pricing and marketing accordingly.
That’s the kind of thing that happens in the generation end of the energy business. Big players make big moves, and that can throw whole industries into confusion - so for instance the nuclear industry is seen as a saviour in the UK, for providing low-carbon electricity, while in Germany, it’s seen as a villain because Japanese nuclear power stations turned out not to be earthquake proof in 2011.
But should we be focussing on the generation end so much? on Friday, the journal Nature Climate Change published a paper which argues that we would do better attacking the problem from the angle of energy efficiency.
“The power generation technologies are the ones that capture the headlines - and the funding,” says Dr Charlie Wilson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia. “To give you a sense of the skew,more money has been put into nuclear fusion, which has yet to contribute anything, than on all energy efficiency and energy use technoliogies combined.”
On one level, this is a long-familiar fact. It is far cheaper, per kWH of energy, to save energy by Insulating a building, than to generate the electricity from any current source.
But saving energy doesn’t seem to inspire people. Environmentalist Amory Lovins came up with the “negaWatt” some years ago - a measure of energy saved, to encourage policy makers to focus on that side of the equation.
Smilarly, the “transition town” movement has been all about using less energy in order to conserve the fossil fuels that provide most of our energy, and ease the transition to a world where they are increasingly scarce.
Wilson believes that efficiency is overlooked because of a combination of factors, but mostly because it is largely invisible.
“There isn’t an energy conservation company equivalent to Shell,” says Wilson. “And conservation is distributed and intangible: it doesn’t have the ‘ribbon cutting’ quality of a big off-shore wind plant.”
He also believes that energy conservation is currently difficult to do because the data is difficult to aggregate and use.
That is the challenge for the IT industry to take up. It’s exactly the Big Data problem which companies including IBM and HP are busily trying to solve.
IT players are promoting measures ,such as Smart Grids, Smart Transport, Smart Cities and all the rest, which are all, at heart, about efficiency. In all these cases, a lot more instrumentation is added to our infrastructure, to gather and use that awkward distributed data.
In so doing, they say they can spot energy waste and eliminate it by using resources more efficiently.
It’s a good movement, but will have to be marketed very well indeed - to convince the world that it is worth investing in efficiency in the hope of reducing energy demands and averting the need for more capacity.
And the big IT folk will have to convince policy makers that the data centers needed to operate these measures are paying for the energy they are using - by enabling greater savings elsewhere.