The Efficiency Problem

ImageAmory Lovins and Me

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 70s 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 claims “We need to ring three or four times as much work out of the energy we use, so we can get expanding returns.”

To achieve that Lovins believes:  “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 – that’s a cross between a fee and a rebate so that when you go to buy a new automobile of whatever class and size you want, depending on how efficient it is within that class, you either get a rebate or pay a fee, which in how big depends on the efficiency but the fees pay for the rebates.”

One country which is having to take a hard look at its energy efficiency is Japan.

After the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima crisis, Japan shut most of its nuclear power plants. It’s made the power issue more acute than in many other parts of the world.

Japanese engineers believe they lose five percent of energy in transmitting it around the country. And as a result they are looking at new Super-Conductive power lines.  Super-conductivity where electricity flows without resistance has been touted as the holy grail. Now for the first time cables made from superconducting wires are being tested by Sumitomo electric and The Tokyo Electric Power Company which is is now supplying electricity to 70,000 test homes using superconductive cables with cooling systems.

The cables are made from an unlikely material – ceramic which is cooled to minus 200 degrees celsius. Liquid nitrogen flows along the ceramic cable which is encased in a double-layer of stainless steel in a vacuum. It’s the same principle as a thermos flask: no heat can get in from the outside.”

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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