Good News About Sustainable Energy

When we talk about efficiencies it often becomes difficult to figure out who benefits from the efficiency. Airlines may be as efficient as they can be (spend the least amount on wages and fuel per passenger moved) but that does not mean that airline travel is efficient for the passengers. They may stand in long lines, be shunted through airports they do not want to visit and fly at times they do not want to fly. In other words, from the passenger’s point of view, each airline flight is often very inefficient.

Efficiency needs to be evaluated at a system level and the point of view needs to be defined. In 2009 David JC MacKay (1967-2016) wrote a wonderful book called “Sustainable Energy – without the Hot Air” and in that book he very carefully describes present day energy efficiencies and provides guidance on what efficiencies can be achieved. The book received very high praise and he was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, he made a very interesting error in his analysis.

The error was not a calculation error, but rather a perspective error. In the book he tries to answer: “How do renewable energy sources stack up compared to our energy consumption?” His point of view is humanity and in his book he tries to calculate how much energy each person uses and how much renewable energy can be generated. He determines that there is a limit to the amount of renewable energy that can be generated (with today’s technologies) and notes that this, per person, available energy is less than the per person consumption of a first world citizen.

In later chapters of the book he tries to identify possible solutions to decreasing per person energy consumption so it will match available renewable energy. His final answer is not entirely satisfactory since it appears that if everybody in a world of about 9 billion people lives in the most efficient first world fashion there still probably would not be enough renewable energy.

This is rather depressing, but it is fascinating reading because in his analysis he switches between different technical approaches with regard to increasing efficiencies.

Mostly he focuses on equipment efficiencies. In doing so he tries to figure out how much more efficient cars could be or how much more efficient refrigerators could be, and there are limits to the efficiency increases that can be achieved. For example air drag cannot be reduced beyond a certain point and on airplanes we have pretty much hit the wall and even with cars we will only make incremental gains. However, every now and then, he quickly states that certain systems (instead of equipment) cannot be made much more efficient. The one system that he specifically identifies as such is maritime transportation!

Here he states that the maritime transportation system is so efficient that it is actually a small consumer and cannot be much improved. He also notes that road transportation is very inefficient but, when discussing possible efficiency improvements, he only focuses on equipment improvements, and never focuses on road transportation system improvements. That would be like stating that ship efficiencies can only be improved a little, and we should not consider the benefits of containerization and would ignore the almost incredible maritime transportation efficiency increases we have achieved in the last 50 years.

If one were to think of road transportation as a system that needs to be improved (instead of a whole pile of random components that each need to be made as efficient of possible) the whole picture changes and it becomes quickly apparent that much higher efficiency gains can be achieved than suggested in David MacKay’s evaluation.

This approach is discussed in a paper “Containerization V2.0: The adoption of a five foot standard width for short distance cargo and passenger transportation” that I will be presenting at the SNAME annual meeting in Seattle.

This paper indicates that a very low cost modification to road transportation as we know it today can very quickly result in very impressive efficiency gains. This can be a legislated modification, or it can be implemented like Malcolm McLean implemented containerization; by sneaking it into a maritime killer app and allowing it to go viral.

Either way, it shows that, if there is a will, there are options out there that provide sufficient sustainable energy for everybody to live in a first word fashion. Not bad news.