Shaking it all up – disruptive technologies in energy


Sceptics often point to the high cost of renewables compared with fossil fuels, and say that growth in renewables can only be sustained with subsidies. On the other hand, the promoters of renewable energies point to the prospect of technological improvement which will drive down costs. And this cost reduction has been happening in the case of solar energy with remarkable rapidity, and will surely continue. The basic thesis of Tony Seba’s new bookClean Disruption of Energy and Transportationis that this process will accelerate, and be accompanied by other “disruptive” technologies such as distributed power generation and electric vehicles.

The subtitle of the book is “How Silicon Valley will make Oil, Nuclear, Natural Gas, Coal, Electric Utilities and Conventional Cars obsolete by 2030.” This is a remarkably bold claim, and many will find it too bold. But Seba provides plenty of food for thought. His view is that the costs of some of these disruptive technologies are likely to follow the sharp cost reduction curves that have been seen in the electronics industry, rather than the slower experience curves that one finds in traditional energy industries. Moreover, with the economies of renewables not being fuel-cost dependent, these increases drop through to the bottom line of production costs. And, with distributed power requiring much smaller incremental investments, new business models and new funding mechanisms such as crowd funding come into play, representing a major disruption to the traditional models of electricity production and distribution.
A revolution in the transportation industry is also predicted by Seba, with electric vehicles and self-driving cars developing to the extent that he claims “gasoline cars will be the 21st century equivalent of the horse carriage by 2030.”

Here is how Seba summarises things on his blog:

“This is a technology-based disruption reminiscent of how the cell phone, Internet, and personal computer swept away industries such as landline telephony, publishing, and mainframe computers. Just like those technology disruptions flipped the architecture of information and brought abundant, cheap and participatory information, the clean disruption will flip the architecture of energy and bring abundant, cheap and participatory energy. Just like those previous technology disruptions, the clean disruption is inevitable and it will be swift.”

The implications for the established energy industries are spelled out in chapters entitled “ The End of Nuclear”, The End of Oil”, “Natural Gas – A Bridge to Nowhere”, “The End of Biofuels” and “The End of Coal”. Seba is clearly of the opinion that we are at the start of major and rapid structural change in the energy business. This counters the more conventional wisdom that change will take time, and for a counter-view to Seba’s one could do no better than read Vaclav Smil’s “Energy Transitions.” .