Why is winning Everyone loves high tech toys, but it’s low tech solar beaming into us for free which will keep us energy-ised. WORDS MURRAY GRIMWOOD
WE WENT to a seminar last night. The presenters were people with passion, purpose, talent to burn and a unified goal, that of technologising our way out of climate change. They enthused about electric cars, about the fast, smart charging of them and about renewable energy, wind in particular.
They almost had me convinced. Almost.
Local researcher Cle-anne Gabriel kicked the discussion off by describing the mix of energy used in Dunedin, base-line data for monitoring future changes. While it was interesting to note the suburbs which had bought into pellet-fires – and those which had not – the takeaway impression was that Dunedin still has a major reliance on fossil fuels, petrol, diesel and coal. Just like everywhere else.
Then we heard from a local builder of two electric cars. He’s a member of the smart technical brigade and his message was one of continuing battery improvement, particularly in the number of charge-cycles they can live through, now up to around 1200 cycles for the latest generation of Lithium Ion (LI-ION) batteries. He described this as a game changer, a comment not to be dismissed lightly when it comes from a man who clearly does his technical homework.
The effervescent Dee West of Betternz (www.betternz.org) was next, enthusing about electric cars and the non-profit group she fronts, formed to promote electric transport. Betternz pushes the message ‘Charge, Drive, Teach’ and Dee puts her money where her mouth is, having bought several electric vehicles.
Nick Smith of Chargenet (charge.net. nz) was next. It seems to involve the same players, but addresses the major bottleneck – battery charging – when it comes to mainstream uptake of electric vehicles. All factory-built EVS have an on-board charger built to interface with a household power supply, by far the most common scenario.
But the limitations of household supply mean that the charging is slow – typically overnight – which in turn limits how far you can roam in a day. Chargenet’s fast-charging system promises to change all that, with just a 30 minute wait and then you’re away again with a full tank of willing electrons. Just time for a coffee and you’re back on the road.
The technology is smart, with identifying key-rings, apps and convenient payment methods, while the sites will be hosted by the likes of Z Energy and The Warehouse. It’s a well sorted, well thought-out approach and if it has a downside I’ve yet to spot it.
The last speaker was Eric Pyle from the New Zealand Wind Energy Association (www.windenergy.org.nz). I’ve heard Eric talk on a couple of occasions and noticed that every time he speaks he reports more wind energy – a lot more. Wind – like solar – is being taken up at exponentially-increasing rates, about the only thing on the planet doing that, apart from debt.
The EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) of wind infrastructure seems to be getting better too, leaving storage as the elephant in the renewable-energy room.
Batteries. There’s the rub. Storing a charge, getting it in and getting it out, is still the problem. The batteries are ordersof-magnitude better every year, but can we really replace the existing vehicle fleet – all one-billion-plus of them – with Lithium Ion batteries? The Tesla people are giving it a big heave, establishing a solar-powered factory in the Nevada desert.
When we got home, I looked back on what I’d written a year ago after visiting the Evolocity event in Christchurch.
“It is easy to look at much of this kind of stuff and see an affluent middle-class which will continue its unsustainable way of life. There is a lot of failing to join the dots with that.
I come across well-meaning folk earnestly advocating electric public transport so people can get to work. The problem is that the ‘work’ expects ‘income’ which expects to be ‘spent’ on processed resources, and it’s the increased proffering of those processed resources which is the actual problem.
“Turn the big picture backwards and start from a ‘what is sustainable?’ viewpoint and it makes more sense. The only long-term sustainable energy source is renewables, and all renewables derive from the sun, so the answer is solar. The only way we have currently (bad pun) of transmitting that solar energy is electricity. If we’re going to transport stuff or do work like cultivation in a sustainable manner, solar and electricity will figure.”
But after last night’s presentation, I’d change ‘solar’ to ‘renewables’. Clearly wind energy is coming of age too. Otherwise, I stand by it all.
US author and wordsmith extraordinaire James Howard Kunstler puts it like this.
“The cornucopians and technonarcissists would like to think that we are transitioning into an even more lavish era of techno-wonderama – life in a padded recliner tapping on a tablet for everything! I don’t think so. Rather, we’re going medieval and we’re doing it the hard way because there’s just not enough to go around and the swollen populations of the world are going to be fighting over what’s left.”
Wind Energy man Eric Pyle says we are in a race, referring to technology versus Climate Change. I think we’re in a race too, but the one Kunstler identifies: population versus resources. I’d like to think we can do better than our medieval ancestors though. We don’t have to abandon all our knowledge, just shrewdly use what we do have and do know to buy all the time we can. Then we need to use that time effectively.
In the meantime, the question is whether a particular activity is a negative one in sustainability terms, or whether it’s positive or at least neutral. The Tesla/ Lithium Ion battery/charging line of development is a good deal better than many things we currently indulge in, and may result in a useful string to our future bows. The fact that the technology relies on the global financial system and a large number of specialist suppliers is irrelevant to the knowledge-gaining process, as is the possibility that those involved may go broke. The knowledge will just be known rather than unknown, which has to be a good thing.
But if things do go pear-shaped, anything high tech is always going to be harder to maintain. I’d rather have an old-fashioned windmill driving an old-fashioned, leathersealed piston pump pushing water uphill to an old-fashioned pond than any high-tech battery-bank with its high-tech inverters, chargers and controllers.
The more complex anything is, the more likely it is to need maintenance and the more likely it is that the maintenance will require a specialist. Simpler stuff needs less maintenance and at a simpler level, meaning more people can indulge in it.
I wish these folk well, but – wind generation aside – I don’t think they are addressing our major problems. That is because I see the increasingly technologised, increasingly complex, increasingly specialised Western society as the problem, and more of a problem is seldom the remedy.