System overhaul

[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″][mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]I[/mk_dropcaps]nnovation in global energy systems stalled 40 years ago, and to reboot it we have to look at how energy is used rather than where it comes from. That’s according to Arnulf Grübler, senior researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, a professor at Yale University, the author of numerous books and an expert in the history and future of technology and the environment, particularly energy, transportation and communication.

Grübler is also the author of the chart here, which illustrates a simplified view of his research on global energy system change. The figure shows two “grand transitions” in the main energy systems historically used to power our lives — the first from traditional biomass to coal-powered steam engines during the industrial revolution and the second from steam power to petroleum around the turn of the 20th century, followed by large hydro projects and nuclear power as sources of electricity. Both transitions were driven by demand for cleaner, more concentrated or energy dense and more convenient fuels to power new technologies that caused sweeping societal changes. But a third such transition is nowhere in sight. As you can see on the graph, change stalled in the 1970s.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][mk_blockquote style=”line-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]To power a third transition, society needs to focus on supporting new end-use technology and find novel ways to use existing technologies.[/mk_blockquote][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]Grübler says the broken innovation system is the result of conflicting incentives and erratic policies born of the 1973 oil crisis. The problem being that the policies focused on supply-side innovation as opposed to end-use innovation. “It’s counter-intuitive,” says Grübler. “People never think about end-use, but the consumer is king of the system.” The major past changes to energy systems were driven by consumer demand, and that demand was driven by the usefulness and pervasiveness of end-use technologies. The shift from traditional biomass to coal, for instance, was driven by a demand for mass transit and mass production. The light bulb and the internal combustion engine, meanwhile, drove the second change.

To power a third transition, society needs to focus on supporting new end-use technology and find novel ways to use existing technologies, Grübler says. The way to do that is through stable and consistent innovation policies. Ultimately, Grübler says that this approach will move society away from carbon sources and combustion engines, and that people will adopt new products when they provide a greater benefit than existing products, as in the last two transitions. “We need to innovate the system of generating and diffusing innovations.”[mk_font_icons icon=”icon-stop” size=”small” padding_horizental=”4″ padding_vertical=”4″ circle=”false” align=”none”][/vc_column_text][mk_image src=”” image_width=”800″ image_height=”1608″ crop=”false” lightbox=”true” frame_style=”simple” target=”_self” caption_location=”inside-image” align=”left” margin_bottom=”10″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]– Thomas Hall[/vc_column_text][mk_padding_divider size=”40″][mk_button dimension=”three” size=”large” outline_skin=”dark” outline_active_color=”#fff” outline_hover_color=”#333333″ bg_color=”#13bdd2″ text_color=”light” icon=”moon-reading” url=”/resources/energy-exchange-magazine/issue-3/” target=”_self” align=”left” fullwidth=”true” margin_top=”0″ margin_bottom=”15″ animation=”fade-in”]Read more stories from the Winter 2015 issue of Energy Exchange magazine[/mk_button][/vc_column][/vc_row]