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Energy in Transition

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2016: the ascent of sustainable-kind

Cheap renewable energy part of a process which started 10,000 years ago.

People who live through times of tumultuous change usually don’t realise it. Most people most of the time are not hammering chunks out of the Berlin Wall or detonating atom bombs in the New Mexico desert. Those things were unexpected (to most) and virtually changed the world overnight. However, other equally profound changes happen almost imperceptibly over generations.

For example, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly the moment the automobile became established as an agent of fundamental change. It wasn’t 1864 when the first gasoline powered car was built, or even 1908 when the first Ford Model-T rolled off the assembly line. In the western world, it was probably at least half a century later when cost-efficient mass production techniques made car ownership something most families could aspire to.

And this is where we are now in the energy industry. Solar photovoltaic cells, as a technology, are not much newer than the automobile. The first patent for a ‘solar cell’ was granted in 1888 and mass production has been going on since the 1970s. However, the era we are living in now will be remembered as the true period when renewables including, but not limited to, solar PV turned the energy industry on its head. 2016 is the year unsubsidised renewable energy started to become a more cost-efficient way of making electricity than fossil fuels. In addition, increasingly cheaper energy storage is helping resolve the challenges of matching generation to demand and maintaining a stable electricity network with high renewable penetration.

Photo of Stonehenge from www.english-heritage.org.uk

The effects of this will be profound. It will mean an end to economic dependence on unruly hydrocarbons markets, which, as well as prosperity, have brought rent-seeking, corruption and economic damage to many parts of the world.

Affordable renewable energy can be produced and harvested closer to the point at which it is required, meaning lower transmission and distribution losses, greater independence and no more risky exposure to volatile commodities. Similarly, it will reduce the energy which must be wasted brining fuel to the places it is needed.

As with the automobile, these effects will take decades to be apparent. Energy demand is still growing and gas and coal fired power stations being built right now will still be with us well into this century. However, it’s an exciting time to be working in the energy industry and to know that history is what we are doing now and not just what happened to our ancestors.

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