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Stern Remarks #1 : The S-Curve on Technology Progress

[ Comments on “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet” by Nicholas Stern ]

So, I might be promoting sales of Nicholas Stern’s book with this post, but actually I think we should all read this book, just to be conscious of how Neoliberal Economics hasn’t evolved to encompass reality, even if it thinks it has.

There are many statements, assertions and hopes about the progress and possibilities of technology in Nicholas Stern’s book “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet : How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity”.

In the league table of narratives, some of his texts are as worthy as a comforting bedtime story for a child. I think I should draw out some of the real problems in his soothing optimism, to show his promised land might be forever over the mountains.

I’ve read the whole book once to try and get the flavour. It was dry enough to send me off to sleep on several occasions. Now I have started to go back through it with a fine comb and red pencil. I haven’t finished this job (for instance, I fell asleep reading it on the train yesterday), but I have identified several key threads, particularly in relation to technology, that need challenging.

I will start first with the myth of ever-increasing efficiency in any given technology :-

page 38
“If we start now and plan carefully, the costs of achieving low-carbon growth will be modest relative to the risks avoided. And we shall discover many new opportunities along the way that are likely to make costs much lower than we might now anticipate.”

“The hurdle there is not locating resources – often we know they are there – but inventing cost-effective and environmentally responsible ways to extract them.”

page 42
“Among emissions associated with energy, reductions through efficiency will be of substantial importance right across the board. There is great scope in most sectors in most countries. And progress can be made quickly.”

page 45
“Technical progress in the storage of electricity through different forms of battery is likely to be swift…”

“In the longer term, alternative [aviation] fuels with a strong power-to-weight ratio will be essential. This is a crucial research challenge, and at the moment biofuels seem the most promising contender.”

page 46
“Emissions from cars can be reduced rapidly through the design of engines and control systems…”

“…invest strongly in new technologies…These include still further improvements in solar power, better batteries, enhanced photosynthesis, new generations of biofuels, nuclear fusion and so on. The possibilities are both exciting and enormous.”

page 47
“The changes in technologies required to get to a low-carbon world are likely to usher in a new burst of innovation, creativity and investment.”

page 48
“[a low carbon world] This is a very attractive world and it is not fanciful. It can be built using policies and technologies we broadly understand and can develop and implement. It is a world where we can realise our ambitions for growth, development and poverty reduction across all nations…And previous examples of rapid change in investment and technologies show that we can achieve, in the timescale that is necessary, the deep cuts in emissions necessary for a safer planet.”

page 52
“by the time we get to 2050, there may have been – indeed there will be, if we invest in it – substantial technical progress which will shift these curves down.”

“technical progress is likely to be very rapid.”

page 55
“[costs] could decrease if technological progress is faster than the fairly modest assumption built into the calculations.”

Now, most students of the broad discipline of Engineering are aware of what is known as the S-Curve of Improvement in Efficiency.

For each technological implementation, there is an intial period of slow progress in performance, followed by a more steeply rising increase in performance over time, followed by a tailing off of the performance increases.

The steep section of improvement is the period where major drawbacks with the technology are addressed, leading to rapid improvements.

Let us take a simple example that most people can relate to. The rollout of bicycles into the city environment started haltingly. But as soon as the need for cycle lanes and signage was agreed, things started to improve rapidly. These days, most European cities have bicycle provision on roads.

However, there are still fatalities, injuries and other problems with cycling in the city. Making things better from this point on will be slow and possibly quite expensive. We might need to have a universal 20 miles per hour speed limit in all built-up areas in Britain, coupled with dedicated cycle tracks separated from other road traffic in places of high traffic density. Cycling in the city has followed the S-Curve of improving efficiency.

It is true that sometimes technologies can undergo an evolution that gives them a crack at a new S-Curve in progress. Take the development of the designs of microprocessors used in computing. But there are many technologies where the forms don’t make these radical side-steps, because they simply cannot.

What Energy technologies have faced the S-Curve in implementation and are now in the slow, later phases ? And which can side-step into new “species” with their own possibilities for efficiency gains ?

Startlingly, it seems that there are true gains that could be made in battery efficiencies by using compressed air instead of electrolyte to hold the potential energy.

“World’s first battery fuelled by air : The world’s first battery fuelled by air – with 10 times the storage capacity of conventional cells – has been unveiled. : 20 May 2009 : Scientists say the revolutionary ‘STAIR’ (St Andrews Air) battery could now pave the way for a new generation of electric cars, laptops and mobile phones. The cells are charged in a traditional way but as power is used or ‘discharged’ an open mesh section of battery draws in oxygen from the surrounding air…”

And compress air could be used directly to drive electric cars :-

If both of these developments survive and thrive, they would represent genuine evolution of both battery and motor vehicle technology, and would start up the S-Curve for themselves, starting at a higher efficiency than the old brand of the technology they replace.

But when we look beyond gadgets to things like traditional electricity generation technologies, we are really looking at dinosaurs. Not just dinosaurs, but old dinosaurs.

Efficiency gains are not, and will not be, speedy, from Coal-fired belching behemoth power plants :-

“The average thermal efficiency of coal-fired plants went from 33.15 percent to 33.54 percent in 1999…Some technology is available to limit CO2 emissions, but it is extremely expensive.”

“Analysis: Efficiency of coal-fired power stations – evolution and prospects : Published: Tuesday 25 April 2006 : According to Hans-Dieter Schilling (Energie-Fakten), the average efficiency of all coal power stations in the world currently stand at around 31%, leaving a vast potential to reduce coal consumption and CO2 emissions.”

“In the years 1910, efficiency had already increased to 5%, reaching 20% by 1920. In the fifty’s, power plants achieved 30% efficiency, but the average efficiency of all operating power plants was still a modest 17%…continuous development resulted around the mid 80’s in an average efficiency of 38% for all power stations, and best values of 43%. In the second half of the nineties, a Danish power plant set a world record at 47%. Power stations based on brown coal are a few % less efficient than stations using hard coal, because of the different nature of the fuel. Nevertheless, RWE’s brown coal optimised power station ‘BoA’ that started operation in 2002, reached 45.3% efficiency, the highest value ever achieved by a brown coal power station. The average efficiency of all coal power stations in the world is around 31%.”

“Coal-fired Power Plant with 50% Efficiency Rating…The energy provider E.ON is planning to put such a world record-breaking power plant into operation in Wilhelmshaven in 2014.”

By my simple reckoning, that makes efficiency improvements at less than half of one percent per year.

And in terms of Carbon emissions saved, this is completely wiped out by the rapid expansion of coal-fired power generation.

I’d say that Coal-firing is in the later stages of the development of the technology, with no option of evolution.

I think Nick Stern is being over-confident in his trust in rapid improvements in technological efficiency, and that this truly reduces the usefulness of his big picture.

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