Technological innovation is the new zeitgeist, and our best hope of saving the planet
To save the planet, we thought society would have to make lifestyle sacrifices. Instead, we turned to innovation
As a society, we have never had to pay the full price for our energy. Our (fossil) fuels come free from the Earth, the resulting CO2 is absorbed by the oceans and trees, and the price of gasoline and electricity is everywhere subsidized in one form or another.
Not surprisingly, the modern world is wasteful of energy. Most of our power plants operate as if it is always peak time, while the lion’s share of the world’s factories and building systems are powered by electric motors that have only two settings: off or full throttle, irrespective of load.
Recently, we’ve become better at turning off the lights when we leave a room, but our power sockets are in demand as never before, continually feeding smartphones, laptops and all manner of chargeable devices including, increasingly, the electric bicycle or car in the garage.
For a time, it was thought that we, as consumers, would have to lower our lifestyle expectations and make sacrifices to save the planet for future generations. But, in the spirit of our technological age, we have instead chosen to hang on to the lifestyle and rely on technological innovation to lower the cost to the planet.
One manifestation of this “innovation zeitgeist” is the shift to cleaner energy and renewables. In environmentally conscious Germany, there are already 1.2 million photovoltaic systems, many in individual households, feeding solar electricity into the power grid. At the moment, they still depend on the grid for electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, but advances in energy storage technology mean that soon they will be able to store power accumulated during the day to power their homes at night.
Remote locations such as islands and cut off communities are relying more and more on so-called microgrids, typically powered by wind or solar, with back-up diesel generators for when the wind stops blowing or the sun goes down. They too will soon be able to deploy energy storage technology, allowing them to power their homes and businesses around the clock with stored renewable energy
Alongside renewables, we are deploying technologies that use energy more efficiently. One of the most important is the variable-speed drive, which adjusts the output of electric motors, depending on load. The energy consumption of machines in our factories, as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in our buildings, can be dramatically reduced by switching to energy-efficient motors. In 2013, ABB’s installed base of motors and drives saved around 400 TWh of electricity, equivalent to the annual power consumption of 100 million European households, and this is just the tip of the melting iceberg – 90 percent of the world’s motors are still wasting energy at full throttle.
Energy-efficient motors reflect a conservation approach, which is now an important driver of technological innovation. An interesting example is a new zero-emission electric bus, already in service in Geneva, Switzerland, which is powered by a 15-second flash-charge at various bus stops along its route, meaning no overhead power lines are required. The charge delivers enough power to take the bus to the next charging stop. If the charging stops were to be equipped with solar panels, the bus would run on clean, renewable energy. The same principles apply to electric cars – in the Netherlands, solar-powered fast-charging stations are already being installed along motorways.
The sky’s the limit
A symbolic yet exceptionally powerful example of the innovation zeitgeist is Solar Impulse, a project to fly a zero-emission, solar-powered plane around the world in 2015. The Solar Impulse team describes its plane as a “flying laboratory to find innovative technological solutions for today’s challenges”, especially for using energy more efficiently and conserving natural resources.
By innovating rather than compromising on our lifestyle, we have reached a point where technology is not only enabling us to produce cleaner energy and reduce our consumption, it is actually encouraging us to do so. Today, when you buy a television, refrigerator or household appliance, chances are that you will at least think about its energy-efficiency rating as part of your purchase decision.
The next step is the so-called “smart home”, equipped with real-time electricity, water and heat-consumption monitoring and control systems. Pilot projects have shown that people living in such homes quickly take it upon themselves to monitor and manage their power consumption, not least because doing so reduces their energy bills.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, it seems a safe bet that technological innovation is not only the most realistic option for saving the planet, but the most effective one, too. If, as the evidence suggests, the global ecosystem is already overwhelmed, we’re going to need to do more than tighten our belts if the environment is to survive the addition of billions of ‘proto-consumers’ in the emerging world.