One of the common arguments against renewable energy is that of initial investment and in a frantic rush, one would tend to think that a large scale renewable project would provide the solution to our energy needs since it is a constant source of energy production. However, broadly, such a proposal would only be beneficial and make economic sense in the local short term. There are more sensible ways to invest and structure our network, and here’s how…
Centralization of our energy production in would imply tying all our investment in a singular energy resource. We would have to reconcile ourselves to locking our energy options for the next 20 years or so, until we can recover our investment. A study into the recent trends of renewable energy and societal responses to the shift to green urbanism demonstrates that, while it may not be overtly noticeable, we are making incredible leeway into the green movement. Demand for renewable energy is on the rise and as such, pertaining costs is on the decline. For example, in the solar industry, Moore’s law suggests that the size of transistors, as well as their cost, halves every 18 months or so. This has consequently brought the price of solar energy from 77$ to 0.7$ per watt over the last 40 years.
The same phenomenon seems to replicate through other fields of renewable resources in the last decade. As the average lifespan of a power plant approximates 20-25 years, it means that we would eventually encounter an inevitable economic loss which could be quite subsistent if we invest into a large scale plant as it is sure to undergo constant price reduction in the future.
From an urbanism point of view, coherence is defined by a hierarchy and connectivity on different scales, as urban theorist, Nikos Salingaros, delineates in his writings. This means that for a city to possess a sense of coherence; “it must also have the ability to be plastic and accommodate the curvatures, extension and compression of its paths without disconnect. In order for this to be achieved, the urban fabric must be intricately linked on a minute scale and loosely connected on a large scale. Connectivity on all scales hence leads to urban coherence.” Equally, it would make more sense if our local energy grid is made up of small scale power plants since we would be in a position to take a logical stance and analyse the market trend as it unfolds and subsequently invest into newer and cheaper energy as our energy needs increase. It is therefore of penultimate importance to emphasize the need for mixed energy use and allow long term stability to depend upon emergent connections. Taking into account the speed at which current technologies go obsolete, this progressive elaboration system would be a safer way of investment rather than binding ourselves to a single technology for the next 20 years.
Moreover, in an era where humanity is powered by electricity, what happens to the monocentric grid if one unit, or technology, fails? A pragmatic, resilient, and interconnected network answers just that. It not only ensures a diverse grid but also ensures decentralisation by promoting small scale power plants. It even answers the long term problem of reducing energy transmission and distribution losses.
While renewable energies are becoming the obvious choice for the 21st century, the global industry should not only focus on performance. Of course, a better efficiency means a larger electricity output which, in itself, ensures a favourable economic return, but its important highlighting that there are also other ways of reducing costs, and that ranges from the manufacturing process to the end of the products life.
If we look at the life cycle assessment of such technologies we find out that the manufacturing process still requires a lot of energy and, at times, unfortunately underline an industry promoting toxic wastes. An irony worthy to point out is that of China -the world’s leading manufacturer of PV panels, but not the consumer; mainly exported, those panels are manufactured using energy from the dirty coal industry. What raises additional questions is that of manufacturing; a panel manufactured in Germany normally has to go several trips, back and forth, to China before finally labelled “ready” for market distribution. We need to start thinking of decentralising the industry so that we not only reduce energy in manufacturing but also subsequently lessen pollution associated to transport and distribution. Another aspect of the renewable industry we urgently need to think about is that of waste. In 12 years, we are going to find ourselves with 5.8 million tons of PV waste in Europe alone and while efforts have recently been made to gather PV waste, only one tenth has been recycled in the EU. This is happening in the Wind energy industry as well where we are suddenly finding ourselves with non-operational 30 year old wind turbines. We need to start thinking about those pressing issues now!
Refining the manufacturing and managing intelligent recycling avenues not only provides an opportunity in reaching an even higher sustainable outcome, but also has the potential of making those technologies financially accessible to an even broader audience.
As further relates Salingaros, for the last century, we have been working on fostering engineered stability, within (specific and limited) design parameters. C. H. Holling, the pioneer of resilience theory in ecology, called this “engineered resilience”. They work “perfectly” within their intended purpose but they are often not resilient outside of their designed operating systems. When we start factoring “externalities”, we eventually end up with unintended consequences. What we need to work towards is what Holling calls “ecological resilience”, that is, the resilience to the often-chaotic disruptions that ecological systems have to endure. This calls for an interdisciplinary adaptation where engineering may provide the solution to power a world threatened by climate change.
Hence, sustainably providing for our community, as we can see, is more complex that what it seems. It’s not only the mechanical planning and implementation of autonomous projects that take shape. It is, on the contrary, an intricate task that involves careful and minute attention to details, on an inter-industrial level, as well as factoring in societal and ecological needs to evolve into a living fabric where functionality culminates in societal satisfaction.
Note : The ideas above in relation to encouraging a stable and diverse grid system by promoting small scale power plants were published in a short paper of mine, reviewed by Assoc. Prof. Khalil Elahee, through Energy Magazines earlier this year, where the ideas were founded on Prof. Nikos Salingaros’ works on Urban structure.