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The Switch Energy project is about the challenges and possibilities in mankind's transition to cleaner and renewable sources of energy. The project is centered around a documentary movie. I attended one of the UT screenings followed by a Q&A session with Dr. Scott Tinker (a UT professor and one of the driving forces behind the project), where I got broad overview of different possible solutions being considered and their technological and economic feasibility as estimated today.

If we consider the projected increase in energy consumption over the next few decades, the majority is expected to be fueled (pun unintended) by a thirst for energy among the rising/swelling middle class in the developing world, most of it in India and China. The developing world doesn't have the technology or the capital to satisfy this demand through clean/renewable sources. So this will (need to) be catered to by using cheap fossil fuels (mostly coal), which will have adverse environmental impacts including pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Recall the telephone revolution in India where a large fraction of the country skipped landlines and went straight to mobile technology. Such a leap would be wonderful, but seems difficult to replicate in the energy context. Empowering (pun intended) a billion people and giving them access to a better standard of living (crucially dependent on energy) in a couple of decades while trying to draw all that extra energy from clean and renewable sources, is a huge challenge. Note that it's actually two big and hard problems mixed together.

In all the discussions I've seen about energy related matters, the discourse seems to center around technology, and most of it (loosely) on the supply side. The demand/consumption side is neglected; it is understandably unpopular, as nobody wants to accept lifestyle cuts. When I raised this question to Dr. Scott, he agreed that we'll have to start thinking carefully about our energy usage and be more conscious about it, which requires a big cultural change. We still have a long way to go towards efficient energy usage and a lot of improvements can be made. We can turn the same thing on it's head to motivate ourselves -- we will be able to make significant improvements just by making small tweaks to our current lifestyles. Forming healthy habits among new users just getting introduced to a consumptive lifestyle might be easier than reprogramming established habits in a generation which has grown up believing that energy is abundant. Of course, we can always try to develop technological solutions (like say "smart" devices) but I believe that the issue to be tackled -- perceptions and choices regarding energy, is fundamentally human and not technological.

I don't have any particular brainwaves but I wanted to share my thoughts. I also think that beyond just lifestyles, humans will have to fundamentally alter perspectives on "growth" and progress. That's a whole different discussion altogether, which I'll leave for another time.

Update: As Akila pointed out to me, though I've focused on human aspects above, technology also helps greatly in reducing consumption. For eg: devices which switch off (or go to some low power mode) when users leave the room. A lot of R&D on such "smart" devices integrated into a smart home (which will analyse usage patterns and optimize) is now in progress. Some examples that I've come across are the Pecan Street project, Google's android@home and Microsoft HomeOS(and a broader look at that in MiT Tech Review).



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Published

2012-11-09

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