The hard wall at the end of the soft energy path

August 7, 2012

Three and a half decades ago, energy analyst Amory Lovins laid out a vision for a highly efficient economy powered by renewable energy sources.  Lovins’ “soft energy path”(note: link opens pdf) was so alluring that it remains a cornerstone of most alternate energy policy schemes today.   Lovins’ soft energy path was based on the promise that the living standards of developed nations – created by utilizing energy dense fossil fuels – could be maintained even after switching to considerably less power dense renewable energy sources.  The bridge that would make this possible would be energy efficiency created by ever advancing technology – our lifestyle would be maintained by using more efficient products and thus requiring the lower quality energy provided by wind and solar sources.    The problem with that formulation, however, is that most increases in energy efficiency are not banked as energy savings, but spent on additional consumption.  A study of 50 years of efficiency increases and energy use in Melbourne, Australia, recently published in the journal Sustainability, underscores that phenomenon once again.   The paper is rather technical, but Barry Brook at The Energy Collective does a very good job summarizing it for lay audiences.  For those who don’t want to read the original, I recommend reading Brook’s entire post.  His conclusion is here:

. . . We hear a lot about renewables and smart-grids and electric vehicles plugging in and supporting the grid, and they capture the public’s imagination, but when you look at all of these things carefully, it becomes apparent that they’ll always struggle to move beyond a supplementary role. The reason for this is simple – during winter on cold or near freezing mornings, and in the early evening, people need affordable and reliable heating and this requires large-scale power on demand. Melbourne’s heating season lasts for 4 or 5 months, so you have this need, twice daily, for large scale dispatchable power.

So the paper also highlights the immaturity of the energy and climate debate in Australia – many people assume that Amory Lovins’ “soft energy path” – of efficiency, wind, solar and small-scale distributed power – is the long-term end-point of climate policy, but just how plausible is this pathway, and what have we learnt over the past 36 years? We sort of go round in circles worrying about net versus gross feed-in tariffs for rooftop solar, RECS, and get excited about the prospect of grid-parity and smart grids but these are really second and third order issues. The big picture is baseload, about 80% of our electricity comes from baseload, and during winter, solar is never to have the primary role for heating, wind is intermittent, so as a community, if we actually want to decarbonise, we need to develop some perspective in our policy debates.




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