Personal Reflections on Entrepreneurship for a Zero Carbon Society

This conference, a forerunner of Solar Smart HEAT08 in Cambridge on 28 November, came when there were great ructions in the financial markets; one wondered if this would overshadow proceedings. It did not. It was clear that the financial problems were less important and would be more quickly acted upon than those of climate and environment, and indeed things like water and other resource scarcity and poverty. The rich will move quickly to help the rich, but not to help the poor. Terry Barker predicted the scale of the financial problem and showed how the two issues were similar and different. Some mused on to what extent they were correlated or were as cause and effect. Perhaps the huge ‘created-monies’ from credit cards, mortgages and other debt, leads to the higher levels of spending; and marketing and a desire for cheap things leads to globalisation and pollution. Then you have scarce resources in the production zones and end up moving not only products but raw materials in great amounts and over large distances. So there may be links.

The summary of the conference threads seemed to be:

1. CO2 and PPM
Noting the requirement not to go much higher than the current levels of CO2 in ‘parts per million’ – ever.
Indeed, some suggested we’d already reached ‘risky levels’. Some repeated the need to keep within certain very stringent levels (<450ppm) to keep the total warming to less than 2 degrees centigrade. But this was seen as unlikely, and higher, more dangerous levels of CO2 and warming were expected. Democracies and selfish individuals couldn’t ‘sort it out’. Hence a great deal of ‘doom and gloom’.
2. Electricity
This was seen as the way forward and the way the future would look. You get the electricity from renewables. Cars help grids (see below).
3. Scale
The scale of the needed rapid move toward renewables was hammered home time and time again. People talked of ‘country-sized’ (e.g. Wales) or ‘10%-coastline-long’ arrays of solar panels, wind farms and tidal barrages.
4. Tides
These were seen as a strong for the UK, but not necessarily everywhere else. They work like clockwork unlike many other renewables and can serve base load requirements for the grid.
5. Numbers adding up
This is the hobby horse of Professor David Mackay, who’s writing a book (, a horse I support 100%. He advocates the “kWHr per person per day” as a standard unit to compare all sources with, and that all calculations should be correct and logical without the puff: imprecise adjectival and metaphorical references. He warns against adding up trivial savings, like “phone chargers off”, as this will always be a small fraction of usage even if we all do it.
6. Education
This was shown by the same professor to be done by all of us teaching and by interaction rather than in lecture theatres and with PPT presentations…and certainly not with newspapers.
7. Solar
Solar energy was seen as the leading and most direct way to generate renewable energy or heat.
8. Nasty sources
Nuclear and carbon capture were generally rejected, as were biofuels (but see below). Nuclear because it is just a displacement of the problem (Peak Uranium, half-life), but it was included in the short-term models removing energy gaps. It also has large moral issues (genocide) and big risks (wrong hands). Carbon capture: this was too little too late (technology and implementation 20 years off), said also to be risky against large earth tremors, etc; and generally also suffers from running out.
9. The City
The City was said to reject nuclear and carbon capture too, for reasons around high risks and long lead times. Any (bio)fuels which pitted land-use for fuels against food was totally rejected; the city being the think-tank that it is, albeit an amoral one, can easily calculate greater losses and issues from such a strategy, outweighing any benefits.
10. Variety of Solar
Solar was split in various ways. Large-scale, country-sized or industrial projects we mentioned above. And micro residential or street-type projects. Commercial use. The main issue was that such huge numbers of panels or collectors are needed that we’d have to scale up manufacturing and sourcing ‘enormously’ (sorry for another adjective here). Then it was split into PV panels, transparent PV materials replacing windows, concentrated solar power, which is a large-scale matter where heat is generated and stored in large salt vats to be reconverted to electricity. Solar collectors for micro-heating were mentioned.
11. Large Solar
The large scale solar projects were promising. Concentrated solar and solar PV on a grand scale. Many of the areas where one would like to put them were in relatively local and uninhabited places, such as Northern Africa for Europe and within the US itself and Central America for North America.
12. Small Solar
The small scale projects, solar hot water was said to be a “no-brainer” even now for many millions of people. The total cost is around £4,000 and most of ones heating and hot water needed can be covered with this investment. PV installations cost much more in the UK at around £10,000 for 2kW. Off-grid solutions of both of these may become much more attractive with new technologies coming online. In many European countries the equation becomes profitable with high ‘feed-in tariffs’.
13. Wind
As for wind, we may need enormous areas of land. Truly beautiful, tree-like vertical axis turbines were shown off. This form of energy, unlike tidal, and indeed solar in some parts of the world, is not reliable, but storage makes it valuable. But in the UK, like the more reliable tidal power, we have lots of potential room for on and offshore wind power stations or areas.
14. Battery cars
Battery cars could become prevalent and non-battery vehicles old-fashioned. These battery vehicles could smooth grid-use variability, and indeed act as storage vessels for energy, sending power back to the grid or property. There are lower investments in infrastructure for battery vehicles than alternatives (such as hydrogen cars), very high recyclability of metals for batteries, poor performance and risk of such technologies as hydrogen fuel cells. All forms of hybrid, except perhaps the serial, last-resort hybrid were seen as rejectable. Today’s cars were seen not to be fit-for-purpose. People were keen to buy the battery cars touted by a speaker. Those battery cars were said to be programmable with downloads and upgrades to software, rather than by reliance on the specialised garage and costly software diagnostic kits, which again boded well for simpler times driving. It was also noted that in the urban space, the battery car performed much better, and cost ten times less than running a petrol driven car. Not only this, they are far quieter. The battery cars were designed to be at least as safe as petrol cars; the use of composites makes them lighter and the myth of safety of large “us-versus-the-rest” cars was touted.
15. Peer pressure
As hinted above, this could come in massively when neighbours start vying for the best and most complete renewable and low carbon solutions and wasting energy becomes embarrassing and quaint. The idea of presentations by individuals, whether poor, middling or rich, on what they have been doing for zero-carbon in their own personal cases was seen as something that would be very interesting to share.

16. Personally
I’m happy to change behaviour, and reduce carbon emissions and energy use as best I can. Copenhagen Consensus and reasonable people say that solving the problems of poverty and injustice comes in ahead of reducing emissions. I believe we must move to sustainable consumerism and more equal prosperity as we outlaw, restrict and eliminate environmental damage. I note that Terry Barker said that the markets created as we rush to sustainability are large, larger than what we have now. I believe the net zero-carbon opportunity for sectors like manufacturing, technology business, investment and finance, and indeed the general economy are enormous, and positive (oops, two more adjectives!)

I support a move from GDP as now defined, to a GDP that is never ‘negative’. We can’t build casinos and prisons, add their products to GDP and be glad when it goes up. We need a ‘GDP’ only of healthy positive inputs. That is the GDP that we aim to grow. If what we measure is right, perhaps this will help guide us.

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