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Small can be beautiful

Posted 02/05/2012 by sevans

Big challenges need big solutions, or so conventional wisdom would have us believe. And if big solutions are needed then major projects are generally considered to be the best approach, usually led by national governments, but is that necessarily true? Can big problems be solved by many much smaller solutions; solutions that might be applied on a much more local basis? 

A few years ago that was an approach that even the UK prime minister David Cameron embraced with regards to energy, installing a wind turbine on his then home – a local solution to a major problem. But what has happened since then? 

The current UK government has, like its predecessors, tried to come up with a big plan – a national energy policy – but at every turn this approach seems to have been fraught with problems both predictable and unseen. 

Apart from the continuing nuclear debacle, successive UK governments have pinned their flags to wind turbines as the main source of renewable energy that will enable to UK to meet the EU’s 2020 renewable energy targets. But increasingly even the environmental groups have turned from support to opposition as the realisation has grown about the numbers of such turbines required, and their impact on the landscape, and even their impact on the seascape with the yachting fraternity joining the debate. This opposition has been added to the wider appreciation that the wind does not always blow, and sometimes, as has been seen recently, it blows too hard and turbines have to be shut down.

And then there is solar energy, a renewable energy source that has been proven to work even in climates like that in Germany, which became the largest solar energy producer in the world, and in the UK. A walk around most local neighbourhoods will show that many home-owners believe that an array of photovoltaic modules can work even in the UK. 

Now like many other European governments, the UK is reducing the financial incentives for solar installations, but this was mainly due to the rush from larger projects that hoped to take advantage of this subsidy. Instead, government focus has turned towards shale gas as the latest energy saviour.

Surely we can learn something that can be applied to energy from the mobile phone experience, particularly in the developing world. Rather than spending on major infrastructure investments, mobile phones and now smart phones have enabled consumers across India, China and Africa to access the telecommunications web for not only voice messaging but also internet access. 

This technological revolution can easily serve as a model for distributed energy, with individuals generating much of their own energy requirements. The load on national electricity grids would be lessened, although not eliminated, and the funding currently directed to major projects could be diverted to much smaller individual projects, with the added benefit of job creation for the installation of these distributed systems.

US power companies have recognised that this approach can be a better solution than trying to continuously install additional generating capacity. Perhaps European producers and governments could think about trying a new approach rather than slavishly repeating themselves.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    13/10/2013 09:25

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    03/06/2012 10:25

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