Guest blog: Evolving energy

By Matthew Mellen

“Change is the only constant”, Heraclitus.


From the moment it began, the universe changed. Physicists peer back into the earliest moments to a burst of pure energy that expanded outwards at speed. The laws of nature manifested, shaping everything that was to follow. Gravity pulled atoms together creating stars that would become the engines that would create heavier elements and eventually, life.

For four billion years, life on earth has pulsed into new forms. Humanity is what happens to DNA if you give it enough time. Our enlarged brains conjured technology and in a flash, the rate of change in the universe spiked. Agriculture, spaceships, atom bombs and the internet have transformed our world in under 10,000 years.

Technological change is happening at breakneck speed.
Technology has been described as the newest branch on the tree of life. You might take issue with this but one thing is clear if you think of all the mobile phones you have ever had – it definitely evolves. Today, the rate of change is breakneck, which is why contemporary smart phones carry more computing power then the Apollo space missions.

Against this backdrop, resisting technological change seems less futile, more simply deluded.
The energy debate in the UK has polarised into the repetition of cliched and inaccurate prejudices. There is a constant flow of opinion that cleaning up our energy supply is a cost to be avoided. This doesn’t just ignore the innate and irresistible pressure of change, it also wilfully ignores the myriad benefits of advanced energy technologies.

Some people are naturally resistant to change. For reactionary investors, the degree of resistance they feel might be in direct proportion to how much they have invested in the industry set to suffer through change. Shareholders in BP are perhaps less likely to support the wholesale adoption of distributed renewable energy supply in the UK, for example.

The evolution of our energy infrastructure is not simply an advancement from thermal (based on burning fossils) to renewable (based on capturing limitless, ambient, free energy). Perhaps more crucially, it’s about shifting from centralised generation and supply to networked (distributed) – a transition similar to the change to communications that occurred with the development of the internet.

Energy is evolving from thermal to renewable.
An internet of energy allows all of us to become active contributors to the grid. We can generate, sell, share, store and process energy all of which can help to optimise overall performance. The smart grid could offer immense energy efficiency savings and empower us to potentially benefit in new ways from the flow of energy that is the lifeblood of contemporary human lifestyles, greater energy security being one such benefit.

An internet of energy allows all of us to contribute; anyone with a roof or patch of land could gain some independence and could make some extra money. Like the information internet, it is based on an end-to-end philosophy, reducing the role for utility company middle-men. The era of huge power stations on standby – burning coal but not supplying energy could end. Likewise the hyper-polluting spikes of demand when extra power stations must be turned on to service the synchronised use of appliances – a clumsy and harmful way of addressing a problem that is easily solved with the integration and coordination of information.

The scientific icon of the 20th century may have been the atom. Reductionist physics was triumphant and powered old-school technological change. Furthermore, the development of the nuclear bomb defined geo-politics for the second half of the century as apparently ideologically-opposed nations squared up to each other with similarly, centralised governments and militaries that had their fingers poised on weapons systems that could end civilisation.

Networked communication has transformed how we work, live and socialise.
In contrast, the 21st century may be defined by the net. Just as networked communication has transformed how we work, live and socialise so networks of connected citizens change politics and governance. Too much centralisation disempowers the people and over-empowers those in control. Deeply unpopular wars, recently fought to secure fuel for centralised energy systems was one result.

All the benefits of networks apply to energy too.

Distributed utilities allow more people to benefit, could reduce the risk of blackouts or wastage, could allow more diverse generation technologies to be plugged in and could remove the democratic distortions presented by giant, energy mega-corps.

The message to shareholders who are invested in fossil fuel energy is that networked energy supply is as inevitable as the internet and it could change society just as much.

Large centralised power companies are to energy what EMI was to music, Kodak was to photos and Blockbuster was to movies. Spotify, Instagram and Netflix didn’t just take over because they worked better online. They harnessed the power of networks to give people a new participatory experience of the medium.

Energy is so fundamental to our economy that applying the network effect could change everything. Networked energy might  counter the dominance of banks and energy mega-corps. It could open up new realms of work and local opportunities in job creation. It could remove one significant motivation for warfare and it could contribute to decentralised governance. The energy revolution is imminent, so get ready to plug in.

Matthew Mellen is campaign director for Trillion Fund.

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