Small is beautiful

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Courtesy of Energy Institute (EI)

The book Small is Beautiful by economist E F Schumacher was originally published at the time of the 1973 oil crisis. To quote Wikipedia “It is often used to champion small, appropriate technologies that are believed to empower people more, in contrast with phrases such as bigger is better”.
I think these words could usefully be applied to the challenges facing the energy industry today when we are facing different challenges that may, with the benefit of hindsight, look like an energy crisis.

The last hundred and fifty or so years have seen the energy industry fixated with bigger is better. It has been about the larger power stations, heavier and deeper offshore platforms and bigger companies. I think this is, however, yesterday’s trend. The future is smaller, more distributed and local. Here are four illustrations.

  1. More and more homes, schools and offices are fitting small solar systems and now this is frequently being combined with local storage. You can now install lithium ion batteries that are smaller than conventional gas boilers which means that all of your solar produced power can be consumed on-site. These are small, personal decisions which are democratising and disrupting the big centralised electricity system.
  2. The rise of unconventional oil and gas has transformed the economics of the fossil fuel industry. Regardless of the controversy around fracking, one thing is clear. These wells are quicker and faster to develop than the pieces of giant industrial architecture that dominated the industry until recently and this is changing the nature of the commodity cycle and the politics of the energy industry.
  3. Even the nuclear industry is being affected. If the 1600MW Hinkley Point C ever gets built, I suspect it will mark the final death throes of the bigger is better mentality. The focus is now on so-called small modular nuclear reactors which may be a fifth to a quarter of the size of Hinkley and stand a sporting chance of being connected with words not normally associated with nuclear power; ‘on time and on budget’.
  4. The market share of the big energy suppliers has been in steep decline recently and we have seen the emergence of a range of smaller competitors with different business models as well as the growth of collective and mutual owned energy suppliers. I suspect that this trend is going to be a consistent feature of the market.

The challenge for the energy industry will be how it copes with the disruption that is bound to occur as we move from a bigger is better world to one where small is beautiful and diversity of scale is a strength.

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