This is my first post for over a year, and I’m planning on following up with several more posts in the near future. I’ve been working on several projects, including my project engineering role in manufacturing, research projects on hydrogen and a book on storage, which I’m pleased to announce has been published in both eBook and hardcover formats. It’s co-authored with Josh Floyd and titled “Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach”. We focus on first principles to understand the past, present and future of energy storage, including hydrogen. This book brings together a lot of the work I’ve been doing since 2015.
According to the thesis proposed in our book, the forms of human social organisation share, as a common enabler, the storage of their primary energy sources on a large scale. The levels of socio-political complexity achieved in the societies most people inhabit today are enabled by abundant and cheap energy. But these societies are shaped also by the means of energy storage made possible by the physical characteristics of our principal primary energy sources. Energy storage is essential to the exercise of both physical and political power. It allows the distribution and control of power in time and space.
We argue that each distinct form of large-scale, socio-politically complex society evident in the historical record can be identified with a universal and ubiquitous form of energy storage, beginning from the Neolithic, through the period of industrialisation, and the Age of Petroleum. The fundamental role of energy storage can be inferred from the ways in which it is coupled with political power structures, and from its relationship with institutions as essential as monetary systems. Today, petroleum, the energy stock most central to the control of physical economic activity, provides the de facto primary physical backing for the global monetary and trade system. Energy storage and its relationship with human societies must be appreciated simultaneously in biophysical, cultural, and technological terms.
Energy storage is usually understood with a techno-economic framing. Indeed, discussions around hydrogen, batteries, renewables integration and storage generally, are nearly always framed with respect to learning curves, market opportunities for profit-seeking actors, and least-cost scenarios. We don’t seek decisive answers to these issues, rather, we step back and re-frame the role of storage to open up questions for further inquiry.
We explore the questions – What role does energy storage play in economic systems and the ways of life they enable? How do we value the benefits and costs of storage? Is it sufficient to consider storage solely in technological terms? And can storage technologies substitute for the unique performance characteristics of petroleum fuels, with their large inherent storage built-in, at large scale?
Chapter 1 begins by exploring the role and value of storage from first principles, taking into account lessons from the historical trajectories of human societies. We explore three key cultural transitions in human societies and argue that energy storage played a defining role in all three. We identify the transitions as (1) the Neolithic transition, manifesting in the shift from foraging and hunting to agriculture and settlement; (2) the first industrial revolution, manifesting in the rise of coal-fired steam power; and (3) the Age of Oil, manifesting in the emergence petroleum fuelled mass mobility.
Chapter 2 examines the origin and role of fossil fuels and explores their importance in enabling contemporary forms of social organization. The focus is on the ways in which shifts from flow-based to stock-based energy sources supported economic changes that were previously unavailable. From an energy harvesting perspective, fossil fuels and atmospheric oxygen are two sides of the same coin. Both share the same origins in earlier life on Earth. Exploring the origin and unique properties of fossil fuel energy is important for appreciating the contribution of fossil fuels to human civilization, and understanding just how difficult they are to replace
Chapter 3 is a primer on energy and the fundamental forces of nature and an exploration of the implications for energy storage. We begin with the four fundamental forces of nature, and explore how these relate to energy supply and energy storage. Virtually all energy in nature and society is ultimately derived from fusion or fission, which are manifestations of the strong and weak nuclear forces.
Chapter 4 introduces the net-energy concept and explains how net-energy analysis and the EROI metric can contribute insights that are not obvious from market-based economic analysis alone.
Chapter 5 reconceptualizes efficiency as it applies to storage. It introduces the concepts of direct and indirect efficiency in order to provide context for the importance of embodied energy and EROI.
Chapter 6 considers electricity supply from an electrical engineering perspective. Electricity faces storage limitations that are unusual compared with other energy carriers, and it warrants special attention due to the system-level implications of transitioning to high penetrations of variable renewable generation. The discussion draws attention to the role of existing electricity system services, with an emphasis on how these might be replicated with renewable generation and storage. It also discusses the functions of the most common forms of storage presently deployed in modern electrical grids.
Chapter 7 considers the strengths and limitations of scenario analyses reliant on quantitative modelling for investigating the storage magnitude that may be required in high penetration renewable energy futures. All claims about the viability of future energy pathways stem from some form of energy modelling. However, a major weakness of such techniques for investigating future viability is that model-derived findings cannot be validated against real world outcomes —the energy system configurations hypothesized in many large-scale energy transition studies simply do not exist in the real world. We explore the implications of model derived findings and offer some views on the type and scale of storage that may
be required in transitioning to societies largely dependent on variable renewable energy.
Chapter 8 explores the role of hydrogen as an energy carrier and the concept of the “hydrogen economy.”
Finally, Chap. 9 synthesizes the various strands of inquiry pursued over the book’s course. If energy storage does indeed play the fundamental role in human history that we propose, then so too should we expect it to feature prominently in possible futures. In this chapter we briefly consider six scenarios for the futures of human societies. In each of these, satisfaction of the socio-economic functions provided by large-scale energy storage acts as the central plot driver, while a particular response to the storage challenge acts as protagonist.