Energy – is there data to model the future, and is it open?

Daniel Kenning, who said he works in “this thing called transition engineering”, which is about helping organisations, communities and individuals “to work towards a desirable future”, is particularly interested in energy, and fossil fuels, and alternatives.

He told the final session of day one that there is lots of information about energy use in the past. But very little about the future. So, he asked, “is it possible to take all that data from the past, and use it to create a map for the future?” At the moment, he warned, there is a belief that “we can carry on in the same direction” but we can’t, so can we map a safe way forward, that doesn’t just say “we need to do this because of the climate.”

Speakers pointed out this raises a profound question. Are we talking about energy use – in which case we’ll be doing modelling based on observable trends in, say, people’s acquisition of the use of smartphones, or companies driving AI, to work out how much energy might be needed in the future. Or about energy supply – in which case we’ll be trying to work out what we will be able to use safely, allowing for issues like we could meet demand by burning coal, but we don’t want to do that.

Working around Sturgeon’s Law

Daniel said the latter. But, of course, it’s hard. One speaker suggested that one reason is that immensly complex systems like the interaction between energy availability and use will be subject to Sturgeon’s Law (90% of things are crap).

So, we try and make the computing system more efficient. But then something like BitCoin comes along. Or a lot of effort will go into things like hydrogen. Only for solar panels to get good enough to power underground stations.

Fine, Daniel agreed, but at the moment, governments are talking about ‘net zero’ and how consumers and suppliers can get to it. When what they really need to think about is how reliant they are on energy, and how they could cope if it becomes hugely expensive or not available.

As an example, he said he goes to two barbers: one relies on overhead lights and uses power clippers, and one has a big window and scissors. One can carry on during a power cut and is much more sustainable than the other. “We need to be brave, and say what would happen if we couldn’t do business as usual? How would we carry on?”

Or, to put it another way, instead of saying we do this, and we need to use less energy while doing it, we need to say we have this amount of energy, what are we going to do with it?

Fighting the market

Speakers were sceptical, given the role of market forces in driving demand. They suggested that only excessive costs would create change.

However, Daniel argued that market forces could still have a role,  and a different role, by providing an incentive for companies to work out how to do things more efficiently in line with the direction of travel, which would give them a competitive advantage, over companies that failed to adapt.

The data is there – but it’s not open

Another participant said that if the question is where is the data to wrestle with these questions, the energy crisis of a couple of years ago could provide a guide. At the time, she said, she had a client who asked for some future modelling of price setting. “And we had to say the data was not available, because it is commercially collected, but it is closed.

“Producers have forecasts, to future proof their businesses, but it is not available to us.” So the first thing to do, is to ask for the data to be made open. “The question is not: can we do it? But can we get the data that will allow us to do it.”

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