Recognising the future when we see it

The future: Just how different will it be? Picture Copyright DIsney

The future: Just how different will it be? Picture Copyright Disney

Fifty years ago, when I was 2 years old, the Scientific American wrote:

The possibility of applying machines of the digital-computer type to the problem of information retrieval has spurred an increasing number of workers. If we could perfect an information retrieval machine, the wisdom accumulated in the libraries of the world would be more readily available.

And during my lifetime, the seemingly unfeasible challenge of ‘perfecting an information retrieval machine’ has been solved. In other words, 50 years ago someone spotted the possibility that already existing trends could transform the world. And it happened.

I was reminded of this by an optimistic TED talk by Amory Lovins on how we can continue to live advanced lifestyles, but perfectly sustainably. He asserted that by 2050, the USA could transform its energy outlook, living sustainably, reducing carbon emissions by 80%, and all without any new inventions.

Now 2050 is a year I could conceivably live to see. I had planned to die in 2040, but if things are looking as good as Mr. Lovins implies I might stick around. His presentation style is dull, but the prospect he outlined seems exciting, at least as realistic, and much more desirable than that foreseen by Tim Jackson in his vision of a sustainable future.

The talk is filled with details but there are two basic themes: transportation – which currently is based around oil – and electricity supply – which currently is based around coal and gas. He envisages that both fields will be transformed. Transportation will become primarily based on electric vehicles, with residual use of biofuels by aeroplanes. The electricity for the electric vehicles and much else would be generated by a smart electrical grid  driven by sustainable technology, but with some residual use of gas.

His basic narrative is as follows:

  • Currently 67% of fuel use is used to move the car, not its contents. When carbon-fibre composites replace steel in the construction of cars, then the weight savings will allow smaller engines, which will require lighter bodies and a virtuous circle will drive big fuel savings and make electric cars economical. Eventually the change would happen for lorries and buses. Various policies and trends would drive the elimination of petrol as a fuel.
    • ‘Feebates’ would tax older cars and subsidise newer more efficient ones.
    • Road pricing would reduce congestion
    • Alternative communities – ride sharing – would use cars more efficiently.
    • Smart growth – building houses near places of work and shopping – reduce the need for car travel.
    • Traffic management efficiency will reduces stops and starts.
  • As a result of all these changes, ‘peak oil’ will come in demand not supply.
  • At the same time demand for electricity would fall:
    • Referring to a retrofit of the windows in the Empire State Building, he cites massive improvements in the use of heating and cooling
    • 60% of energy is used to run motors, and he says 32 specific improvements will reduce this load
    • Plant re-designs using fatter pipes and smaller pumps save energy and capital costs.
  • And renewable costs would fall
    • Germany has more solar workers that the US has steel workers
    • For each of the last 4 years half of new capacity has been renewable and total installed capacity now exceeds nuclear (60 GW). This much renewable power generation can be built every year.
    • Replace coal-fired stations with gas-fired stations.
    • Use a distributed grid model with linked micro-grids.
    • Reward utility companies for reducing people’s bills not selling them more electricity.

Now there are any number of holes that can be picked in this narrative. Will electric cars really take off? Do we even know how to mass produce carbon fibre products? Do we have enough lithium on Earth to build all those batteries? And so on. That is not the point.

  • Firstly it is good to hear any narrative which explains how, starting where we are now, we can make things better without having to beat ourselves up about bad we have all been.
  • Secondly, the USA that Mr. Lovins anticipates in 2050 is quite different to that which exists today. ‘Alternative’ communities and ‘building houses near to where people work’ while mundane ideas in themselves, represent significant departures from historical trends. These social changes are just as radical as the technological changes upon which he dwells.
  • And finally, the details don’t matter. The person who wrote the words at the head of the article might have envisioned – as the head of IBM was alleged to have done – that there might be a need for as many as 5 computers world-wide. The idea was correct, but the implementation was radically – and unimaginably – different.

My friend Ed – aneasthetised  by the dullness of the talk – asked me: is this really possible? And the answer is, ‘Yes, it is possible. But it is far from inevitable’. As you might imagine, Shell and BP have a more conventional view of how things will develop.

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One Response to “Recognising the future when we see it”

  1. teddnet Says:

    Thank you for sitting through that talk! How can something so exciting be such hard work? It doesn’t really matter that Lovins may have details wrong- the fact that the broad sweep of what he says is believable by a professional physicist is a surprisingly encouraging thing. It is too easy to follow current data, extrapolate current behaviours and politics, and come to a rational conclusion that there is no hope at all, because there is no believable and acceptable sustainable state for future society. The idea that society could have a soft landing inspires us all to give it (‘it’ being personal effort towards sutainable energy usage) a go.

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