Imagining the next 35 years

Jonathan Porritt’s new fiction ‘The World We Made’, set in 2050 narrates a possible energy future.

Jonathan Porritt, founder of ‘The Forum For The Future’ takes refuge in a fiction set in 2050 to write the history of next 35 years. His predictions are based on critical analysis of contemporary data and ‘common sense’ for survival in the future. He imagines a global turmoil over energy, water, marine ecosystem and food security in the near future and a worldwide youth movement called ‘Enough!’ to get politicians back on the road of sanity. In the process, he describes a global solar revolution, a relatively more responsible business class and drive towards decarbonised economy. In an exclusive interview with Innovations’ Accelerator, Jonathan Porritt explains why Sweden will achieve oil-free economy before Germany and a possible off-grid energy future in India.

Full transcript

INNOVATIONS’ ACCELERATOR (IA): You imagine a solar revolution in the near future. How do you see it happening?

JONATHAN PORRITT (JP): Do I see it happening? Absolutely.

I see it happening on many different counts. I see it happening from a PV.. Photovoltaic perspective primarily because of declining prices. The revolution that China’s made happen because of falling prices has actually paradoxically been devastating for the solar sector and has killed a lot of solar business including here in India and in the US. It had a really bad impact on the sector. But you have to think of this in long term. It also has had a brilliant impact on people’s expectations about what PV can do. And I have met two of those big solar manufacturers in China. I am a member of the selection committee for the Zayed Future Energy Prize, which is the world’s largest renewable energy prize in Abu Dhabi and I go out to World Future Energy Summit every year in January and I met two of those guys and they are big tough players. I said to them you are doing pretty well in terms of falling costs and rising efficiencies. Efficiency is increasing every year, not as much as falling cost, but they are increasing… they have got it down to around a dollar a watt. That’s grid parity. So I asked them what are their projections. They said that they don’t talk about projections. But there is no technological impediment to PV going 50 cents a watt. Now at 50 cents a watt, PV is practically competitive anywhere in the world, even on grid-based system, let alone off grid. So at 50 cents a watt, this revolution kicks in big time. I talk to a lot of people in the energy world and they say there is no reason why PV should not go at 50 cents a watt. I don’t think people have thought through the implications of what that really looks like.

Now concentrated solar power, which is obviously different in the Desertec story, I have done a lot of research on that. There are real enthusiasts for CSP and there are lots of people who don’t think it will ever go to scale because it’s too expensive. It’s fascinating. The biggest CSP plant of 380 MW is in the process of being commissioned now in Arizona in the US, with storage. Because of the storage, the story is so fascinating. Its molten salt storage capability built into the biggest CSP plant anywhere in the world. The economics still don’t really add up at the moment. It’s still too expensive. But if you can continue to get that scale, and you can crack the storage problem, you can begin to get the cost coming down. Then CSP in the right place could be an absolutely huge contributor to the solar story and then you look into what I call the innovation pipeline. If you look at the Fraunhofer Solar Institute and all of the amazing work that’s going in different solar technology, particularly in nano technology to enhance efficiency, and give another 10 to 15 years. This technology will be capable of doing so much more than what it does today. So I am pretty confident that the solar story is as powerful as its exponents believe it to be. And what most mainstream politicians don’t understand. They think it’s little bit of nice green bling on the side. They don’t understand that it is a revolution.

And in India … the Government … the State Governments in particular, are still obsessed with extending the grid as the principle mean by which they can meet people’s need. It seems they have not kept up with what’s going on technologically. You look at the combination of solar, bio, mini hydro and wind with mini grids in off grid context, there is no reason why rural communities in India in 10–15 years should not have access to all the energy services they need to make their lives better. It’s a bit like mobile telephony. If you look at what mobile telephony has done to off grid people, it has revolutionized their lives and nobody now will say well we need a fixed line telephone system here. Likewise people are going to say we don’t need the grid. You look at all the transmission losses, all the expense in the grids.

You just look at what the World Bank is saying about this now. It took a long time for the World Bank to understand this. You look at the Bank’s latest report on the potential for distributive energy systems and the benefits that could bring to off-grid poor communities around the world, they are talking the language we talked 15–20 years ago. I am glad they are doing so. I don’t want to be mean about this. They probably could have seen this a little bit earlier so that it could have taken on some people who are stuck in large scale fossil based generation. The IEA talks of distributive energy now. So I think a lot of this will start with off grid.

I don’t think technology is the issue here in India; it’s about cultural, financial and political factors. And we are talking about how the financial story is looking at India. It is still not brilliant. Financing is still very difficult to sort out at the scale we just mentioned. But the potential is there. I was looking at the map of financial institutions in India; you have more rural development banks per capita than any other nation in the world. Now for me off grid renewables underpin every form of rural development, does not matter what you are talking about. Development, therefore, equals the liberation we all get from energy. And I think India is better placed on that score than many countries in the world.

And given how significant the rural vote still is to politicians. This is very different from most part of the world. Rural votes count for nothing in most countries. But here the rural votes really count. So I am hopeful on that.

In some respect, I am really concerned that renewable energy industries globally have been so bad at advocating for policy reforms, for redirection of finance and so on. It really worries me that we have been relatively ineffective in making the case for renewables globally, and in each particular country … even in the UK … I’m not complaining about India alone. In Germany, they made the case brilliantly. They just got their act together. And you can see the consequences there 15 years on, and Germany is an extraordinary example of what you can do when you really drive that agenda.

IA: You have predicted Sweden to be the first oil-free economy in 2016. Why Sweden?

JP: Sweden set the target of being a fossil fuel free country nearly10 years ago, if I remember rightly. Unlike a lot of countries that set these very ambitious targets, they did map out a route map for this on how to get there. At the last count Sweden is doing reasonably well, though they are not on target. What made it possible is Sweden’s continuing use of nuclear in the short term and import of lot Brazilian ethanol, which is controversial in Sweden and anywhere else in the world. What’s also interesting is the development of Sweden’s own biofuel industry. There has been accelerated investment in ethanol from Sweden’s own forests, developing second and third generation biofuels within Sweden, which is an industry of enormous importance. If Sweden can keep pushing on harder, it has a reasonably good chance of getting there. Like everything in this world there has to be constant reminders on why this is strategically so important as a lot of people keep on complaining that it’s going to cost too much.

IA: Why not Germany?

JP: No. Not fossil fuel free, because a lot of it depends on decarbonising the grid. Though Germany has done a pretty good job on bringing on a huge amount of renewables, its grid decarbonising story is still some way away. Paradoxically that has been made more difficult because of its decision to get rid of nuclear by 2022, before the end of the operating life of those reactors. I am not a fan of nuclear power at all; nuclear power is not at all helpful as a technology to get us to ultra low carbon economy. But to close down some of the safest nuclear reactors in the world before the end of their operating life, when you are trying to decarbonise rest of your grids, I have to be honest that does not make sense of me. It does not make sense to me to take out a big chunk of your low carbon generating capability at the time when you are trying to make efficiency and renewables do the heavy lifting for your economy. So Germany has a problem with total grid decarbonisation and coal and gas will continue to play too big a part in Germany’s total energy mix for at least the next 15 to 20 years.

IA: And Gothenburg to provide first carbon-neutral urban living in 2036?

JP: I visited Gothenburg number of times and I spent a lot of time talking to the city planners. I love the way they go about it. Gothenburg is a fascinating city. It’s a progressive city. They have got an ambition to do what I have shown them doing in the book. I just thought well yeah you have to pick one city that is going to go there, it has to be Gothenburg.