Homo Electric, Part 1: The Trillion Dollar Time Trial
The story of the greatest technological challenge in human history
I sailed upon oceans, and I thought no challenge could be greater, and now men sail the void between stars.
Peter F. Hamilton, The Neutronium Alchemist
If you’ve spent any time reading space opera, you’ll be familiar with the moment when someone from an advanced civilisation arrives on a distant planet, and discovers that its inhabitants are using hydrocarbons as their primary energy source. Our genetically engineered, wisecracking heroine is suitably appalled or amused.
Getting most of your energy by setting black rocks on fire and blowing up dinosaur juice is, quite clearly, the behaviour of a backwards and savage people. It’s dirty and it’s dangerous. If intelligent life can invent internal combustion engines, then it’s also prescient enough to know that burning carbon will create a greenhouse effect and ruin the environmental conditions that allowed it to flourish in the first place. In order for a planetary society to advance, at some point it has to undergo a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. A systemic change that is both driven by and drives technological innovation, forges new political and economic systems and operates on a whole new scale.
Which sounds lovely, especially when you can deal with it in a few sentences in a fictional story.
Unfortunately, in the real world, we don’t know how a clean energy transition gets done. Our sample size for known planetary civilisations is one. We’ve never actually seen intelligent life successfully make it to zero-carbon.
The trillion dollar question: is it possible?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that question. In the next three decades, the human race is going to to try to pull off the largest and most important energy transition in our species’ history. If we get it right, it will transform every aspect of the way our society functions (just as all energy transitions have in the past). If we screw it up or if it happens too slowly, we will set in motion a chain of events that will result in unimaginable disaster.
What you’re about to read is a snapshot of the current state of play in the global energy situation, and a tour across the frontiers of what’s to come. It’s a three part, deep dive into energy disruption, not just in wind and solar, but batteries, electric vehicles, smart grids, the electrification of cooling and heating, air transport and shipping, industrial processes, fossil fuel subsidies, disinvestment campaigns… I set out to understand what it truly means to make the transition to a low carbon energy system and came away with a new appreciation for how high the stakes are, a head full of numbers and a heart full of hope and fear. I don’t have any easy takeaways for you. But if you make it to the end, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of where the human race stands in our attempt to make the leap across the great energy divide.
There’s a lot of good news if you know where to look, plenty of sobering evidence, and some downright scary scenarios. It’s complicated. You have to be able to consider competing ideas, to combine the encouraging news with a recognition of just how much inertia is in the system, and increasingly alarming narratives about the catastrophic impacts climate change will wreak, or more accurately, is already wreaking. Throughout, I’ve tried as much as possible to channel Michael Liebrich, the head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who says, “The world doesn’t need fairy stories, it needs clear thought, robust analysis and data, data, data.”
This article is the first in a four part series.
Part 2: How To Make Electricity Great Again, over here
Part 3: We’re Going To Need A Better Bike, over here
Part 4: The Sum Of Our Choices, over here