So­lar

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

NZ Lifestyle Block - - The Good Life -

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.

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