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Futurism and dematerialized growth

May 1, 2018Decoupling, Dematerialization, Futurism

Futurists can be interesting to listen to but almost invariably bring a Silicon Valley mindset to addressing sustainability challenges. Discussing Google’s foray into energy with the RE<C project, Carey King noted that Google brings a mindset that is ‘used to solving some technological problem quickly, selling the company or idea to a larger company, and then moving on to the next great app.’
So it was with interest that I listened to CSIRO scientist and futurist Dr Stefan Hajkowicz on Radio National Breakfast discussing energy and emissions (beginning at 5 min, 10 sec). Although not explicitly identifying ‘smart grids’, he correctly identified the potential for advanced management of appliances to reduce summer peak loads and increase the penetration of variable renewable energy. Unfortunately he brought the classic Silicon Valley stereotype and repeated the pervasive, but incorrect, assumption that digitization and data will enable significant emissions reductions and lead to dematerialized growth.
The idea of dematerialization is not new. One of the early proponents was Buckminster Fuller in 1973, who introduced the concept of ‘Ephemeralization’ — doing more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing. In a more recent example, Kurzweil hypothesised that computing power will eventually cross a critical boundary (the so-called singularity), after which dematerialised economic growth will accelerate sharply. Kurzweil argued that there is a rapidly increasing knowledge and information content in products and services, and that these are not constrained by material resources.
The problem with linking information and communications technology (ICT) with dematerialization is that it’s wrong – the reverse is true. From a macro perspective, the growth of data, the internet and computing power has coincided with growing energy and material consumption. The current debacle of bitcoin’s energy consumption reveals just how misleading the dematerialized argument is. I explored the long-run relationship between ICT and energy in Australia here. Similarly Lenzen et al’s and Alexander et al’s excellent discussions of the challenges of decoupling are relevant to the Australian context.
It is certainly true that that technologies, such as peer-to-peer energy trading, enable distributed energy to bypass traditional markets and facilitate uptake. But the assumed linking of the growth of intelligent management and emissions relies on the assumption of supply-demand synergies. It is assumed that all that is required is bringing data processing and intelligent control to the task.
The earliest example of a synergy was between inflexible overnight baseload power generation, and overnight hot water heating. Electrical resistance space heating was also available as an off-peak tariff in Australia from the 1930s. Highly flexible loads, such as pool pumps, can be usefully operated at any time of the day and therefore represent an ideal managed load. Some industrial loads can be economically demand managed at peak times. But all of these are examples of time-shifted demand. This has little impact on energy consumption or emissions except to the extent that a higher penetration of renewables is enabled. But the problem is that robust synergies between renewables and switchable loads are modest.
These are all interesting challenges, and the march of technology will continue to facilitate solutions in the energy space. But one thing is clear – ICT continues to be positively correlated with energy and material consumption.
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