Introduction to the Westminster Forum on the Future of Energy
Sometimes the future had better not reflect the past. Energy is perhaps chief among them. The damage we continue to inflict upon Earth may never be repaired, and the sooner we take our foot off that accelerator, by finding a better way, the better.
Meanwhile the energy landscape has changed radically in the last year and huge numbers of vulnerable households, including children and pensioners, are suffering needless hardship as a result*
Rethinking Energy: A New Vision
Incremental thinking would cement in the limitations of ‘The Factory Mode;’ where energy is currently generated centrally by burning fossil fuels. In the future by building centralised solar and wind ‘farms’.
But this is not the only solution, nor the best from several important viewpoints:
Energy capture and storage technologies have been advancing in accordance with Moores Law (halving in price and doubling in utility every few years) for over a decade now and are predicted to do so for at least a decade (and probably several) to come. We are also now well past the point where the ‘intermittency’ problem has been solved. Storage is feasible and economic at all levels from grid to domestic using several technologies (including sodium based and heat storage as well as lithium ion).
This energy is not only cleaner but, already, much cheaper. Nor is it susceptible to disruption by the kind of malign actions we saw in 2022 (except perhaps when based offshore).
It is also granular - and the more granular the more robust! Especially if we add to Moores Law the Network Effect. An internet of energy, achievable by harnessing already proven technologies, upgrading and replacing the national grid not only brings about the same resilience for which the Internet itself was designed but also:
Optimises the use of storage across regions
Creates a true market is surplus energy
Community Wealth: Provides a true engine for regeneration of communities across the country
Creates even greater resilience
The financial and other benefits to towns, cities and local communities is hard to overstate, with the potential to multiply the impact of the flagship ‘Preston Model’ many (20x or more) over.
It can also progressively replace the need to generate electricity from fossil fuels and (over time) may render nuclear (and fusion) generation unnecessary.
However “If we do not change direction, we will end up where we’re headed”
(apologies to Lao Tzu).
While incumbents worry about risks to existing investments including ‘stranded assets’, as they move gradually toward a greener mix building energy ‘farms’, even in the best scenario it would take an uncharacteristic degree of altruism (and a reversal of commercial instincts) for them to provide a path for communities toward ownership of their own energy infrastructure. Which would enable us to move much faster to decarbonise and allow communities to end the high level of financial extraction as well as the uncertainty, while generating transformative wealth together with significant job creation locally.
Yet our regulatory and legal frameworks are not only unable to recognise and accommodate the rapid shift that is called for, they remain the biggest obstacle.
Finance less so. Although massive investment is needed it is the kind of investment that the banking system was originally designed for and for which money should not be an obstacle because from domestic to regional level this infrastructure is displacing hard, high and increasingly unpredictable costs - and so can swiftly pay for itself. The more so since the electricity price hikes of 2022.
Fintech: New models and lending routes are urgently needed which can tap the debt (money-creation) capabilities normally reserved for commercial banks to provide this new, granular, infrastructure (a safe investment which can quickly earn its return and more) to start to power our way to net-zero, rather than beyond 1.5 degrees of warming,