BBC World News - Horizons

An Insight into the Future of Global Business

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How to power cities into the 22nd Century

In this episode of Horizons on BBC World News, we visit Japan, Norway and the US to see the emerging technologies which are enabling us to do more whilst using less power.

If Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, were around today, he’d be amazed by the range of technology we have to play with. But he would recognise the way we produce electricity and move it around, because it hasn’t changed that much.

People concentrate on shiny new consumer technologies and rather forget about the less glamorous generation, transmission and efficiency technologies.  But the technologies behind the way we power our modern world is just as important as the products which grab our attention and those efficiency technologies are now undergoing a revolution with the power to change the world.

In this episode of Horizons on BBC World News, we visit Japan, Norway and the US to see the emerging technologies which are enabling us to do more whilst using less power.

Amory Lovins, is the founder and chief scientist at one of America’s leading energy organisations, the Rocky Mountain Institute.  During the 1970s oil crisis, he coined the idea of “negawatts”—the notion that we can meet our global energy needs by improving efficiency rather than boosting production.

He defined the concepts of hard and soft energy paths. The terms arose in his controversial 1976 article that contrasted two “mutually exclusive” approaches to US energy policy.

One approach used more and more energy of ever higher quality, especially electricity, whether it was needed for the task or not. The energy came from ever larger, more complex, more centralised facilities, and its use was rather inefficient.

He called that the hard energy path. It was where most countries were going at that time. Lovins felt it couldn’t work for many reasons and would be a bad idea.

He proposed instead what he called a soft energy path, combining very efficient use of energy and a shift – with some special transitional fossil fuel technologies – to renewable sources that were matched in size or scale and in energy quality to the tasks mankind is trying to do.

Filming this episode of Horizons, I had arranged to meet Amory in the backroom of the California Academy of Science. It’s a fantastic science museum and for the bespectacled, intellectual-looking Lovins, it seemed a perfect place for the interview.

Lovins talks with the enthusiasm of a school boy about the possibilities we have in solving our energy crisis. It is interesting to hear an optimistic voice amongst the chorus of those we normally hear which tend to be a lot more pessimistic.

“We need to wring three or four times as much work out of the energy we use, so we can get expanding returns,” he told me.

To achieve the big increase in energy efficiency Lovins believes that we should  “reward our electricity and gas providers for cutting your bill not selling you more energy. We should pay our architects and engineers for what they save not what they spend. We should use what are called ‘feebates’, a cross between a fee and a rebate.

His idea, he says, would work something like this: When you buy a new car, you either get a rebate or pay a fee, depending on how efficient the vehicle is within its class. If it’s more efficient, you get a rebate. If it’s less efficient, then you pay a fee. The fees pay for the rebates.

But new thinking, like that of Lovins, is now being brought to bear on the problem in lots of different parts of the world.

The issues we tackle in this programme lie at the heart of whether we can continue to grow and spread wealth to other nations.  Get it right and we could power our cities well into the 22nd century. Get it wrong and the lights could be going out a lot more often. 

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