It is hard to define a moment in which humankind realised the potential for electricity to change our world. Perhaps when Edison’s lightbulb flickered for the first time; maybe Voltas' discovery of the battery; or even the publication of Ohm’s observations about resistance. In many ways the world has changed since those seminal events and I suspect not even those pioneers would have dreamt of the revolution their and others’ findings set in motion. However, I find it interesting that despite the wonderful complexity and ubiquitousness of electricity in our lives, we are still faced with the same three questions:
The difference today is the constraints we place upon the answers. Now more than ever we appreciate climate change and the impact humans have upon our planet. The world needs us to be greener. We understand the need for carbon neutrality and we have the commitment to achieve it. What this means is that the answer to the generation question likely involves a significant proportion of renewable energy. Renewable sources are typically fluctuating; for example, the wind does not always blow; and consequently the supply from such generators varies. This has implications for the answers to the other two questions.
We are used to a world where when we flick a switch the light comes on. What this really requires though is that generation can be controlled to meet demand. Today this might simply mean switching on a gas turbine to increase generation and vice versa. But one cannot simply switch on more wind. So what can you do? Well, firstly there is the potential to store energy in a range of ways from large batteries to flywheels to pumping volumes of water uphill. These storage devices could be filled when supply exceeds demand and discharged when the converse is true. Such technologies are being actively pursued today.
The second answer is more nuanced. What if instead of controlling supply, you controlled demand? Surely not, I hear you cry!
I want my light to come on on request. Yes, but light is not the only way we consume power. If we think more carefully about WHY we consume we might be able to have more flexibility about WHEN.
Take your fridge as an example. You put food in there and you want it kept within safe temperature ranges. You don't care when exactly the fridge is cooling (i.e. consuming) as long as those limits are satisfied. Similarly washing machines / tumble dryers and electric cars - you want the clothes or car ready by a certain time, not necessarily to be consuming at a given time. This concept of controlling devices based upon differences between current generation and consumption is called ‘demand-side management’ and can be considered at the domestic and commercial scales.
It has huge potential, but ultimately it may come down to a willingness of people to change behaviour.
In other words, just as the key questions haven’t changed in 300 odd years, maybe one of the answers would also sound familiar to generations past: if you want to change the world, sometimes you need to start much closer to home.
So how can we raise our children to consider their fellow human, what makes them tick, and how behaviours can be changed for the good of all?
Philosophy and Empathy:
What if you charged people more money for electricity when everybody wanted it? (A bit like how flights are so expensive during school holidays). Would this work? Is it fair? What about those who are vulnerable and couldn't afford it?
What are some other ways of encouraging people to use energy at different times? (e.g. education and awareness, allocated times etc)
What would it take to change your own behaviour? For example - if you really wanted a hot shower in the morning, but knew it was hard for society to generate the energy, would you still have that shower?
Creativity and Critical Thinking:
Thing about all the devices in our home - ovens, aircon, hairdryer, fridge, TV etc. What is the fundamental thing it does for us? Is there a way we could get this at a different time, not just when we switch it "on"? (e.g. washing machine that runs at night time)
How could we re-design our home to need less energy? Which things need the most energy? Are there alternatives to these? If I told you that heating and lighting need lots of energy, what would you suggest? What are the pros and cons? (e.g. more windows for daylight may mean less lighting needed, but can also lead to more heat loss)
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