Thinking the unthinkable

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been dipping in and out of a bid that I am writing for JISC’s Greening ICT Programme. Those of you that follow me on Twitter will have seen me drop related tweets into the stream. I’ve been a bit nervous about doing so because they seem quite unrelated to my usual topics of conversation. Also, the subject matter can be pretty depressing and I worry that it might get on people’s nerves after a while. Oh, well.1

Anyway, Peak Oil and a related energy crisis is something I’ve been interested in for a few years and is a topic I discuss regularly with friends face-to-face. Over the years, I’ve found that a lot of people aren’t interested; either because the consequences are just too depressing and/or because the the other ‘big issue’ of climate change is surely what we’re supposed to be worrying about now. (It is, but peak oil is likely to increase our consumption of alternative fossil fuels and therefore increase our carbon output). When we hear politicians questioned about an ‘energy crisis’, they say there is no crisis as long as we concentrate on a shift to the use of a mix of renewables and greater energy efficiency. I tend to disagree because…

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.2

My bid to JISC comes under their ‘Small Scale Exploration Studies of Aspects of Green ICT’. It’s basically part research project and part scenario planning for HEIs and JISC to help them consider and plan for a long-term energy crisis. In JISC’s recent Strategy Review 2010-2012, they include a section on Priority Investment Areas, under which there is a sub-section called ‘Efficient and Effective Institutions‘. This includes providing ‘leadership on Green Computing and environmental sustainability‘ and ‘guidance on sustainable business models’. The sub-section is split into the Here and Now, On the Horizon (2-5 years), and Beyond the Horizon (3-10 years).

You’ll see from my comment, that when I read this, it occurred to me that JISC’s Strategy didn’t seem to recognise the possibility of disruptions to energy supply and significant spikes in the cost of energy over the next ten years. There’s the welcome and necessary acknowledgement of ‘Green Computing’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘efficiency’, but these don’t show an awareness of the fundamental problems that JISC’s Vision, Mission and Objectives would face in the event of an energy crisis.

“But what crisis?!?” I hear some of you say.

Well, there’s a lot of good research available from very credible sources. Today, the BBC and Telegraph reported on The Global Depletion Report,  from the Government-funded UK Energy Research Council. The report, launched today, is authoritative in that it’s a review of all the available evidence and arguments around the issues to-date. You only have to read the Executive Summary to find assertions which should cause us all significant concern.

It confirms what some of us have been reading for years, that global peak oil, the point where it becomes increasingly uneconomical to supply the oil that is demanded by the world, is imminent.

On the basis of current evidence we suggest that a peak of conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.

The estimated range they give is actually between 2009 and 2031, but this doesn’t really matter because they quickly acknowledge that whether it’s already here, ten or twenty years away, the time frame is very tight when it comes to developing substitute fuels. Note that production of oil has actually plateaued since 2006.

Oil production

The report is up front in saying that it doesn’t discuss the consequences of peak oil or how we might tackle it:

The report does not investigate the potential consequences of supply shortages or the feasibility of different approaches to mitigating such shortages, although both are priorities for future research.

Which is why I hope JISC will recognise that this is a vital area of research they should be funding. I had no idea that this report was being prepared – there are plenty of others that offer the same conclusions – but it does seem very timely given JISC’s Greening ICT programme of funding. As I write in my bid outline:

As HEIs increasingly turn to ICT to enhance, support and deliver education, we ask the question: “What will happen to the provision of a technology enhanced education when the consumption of energy is restricted by recurring interruptions in supply and significant spikes in costs?”

In preparing my bid, I’ve obviously tried to pull a few key points together to convince the judges that this is worth pursuing. The first important point to get across is that oil is fundamental to the UK way of life. Pretty much every material benefit we enjoy can be traced back to the discovery, production, supply and exploitation of oil.  Not only does the supply of oil affect the supply of other forms of energy, as the graph below illustrates, it is used in the production of food, plastics, medicines, chemicals, lubricants… you name it and oil plays a part in the process somewhere.

Correlation of oil, coal and gas prices

Source: ODAC

The UK doesn’t rely on oil directly for the production of electricity. We get it from a mixture of coal (32%), gas (45%), nuclear (13%) and renewables (5.5%), importing a third of our gas requirements (this is expected to rise to around 85% of our requirements by 2020). However, we can see that when the price of oil rises, the price of other fuels and, in turn, electricity rises. We’ve all felt this over the last couple of years as we’ve seen consumer electricity prices rise.

As you can imagine, for an organisation the size of a university, rises in the price of electricity can have pretty large financial consequences. Typically, a HEI will tender for a fixed term contract of a couple of years to protect from unforeseen spikes in prices. This is good if the price is relatively low at the time of your tender, like now, but what if your HEI had to renew its electricity contract last year when prices were very high? Our institution, small by comparison with some, is forecasting an annual electricity spend of £1.2m in 2009/2010, up 13% on 2008/9. Even with planned reductions in efficiency and consumption, we’re only likely to be able to reduce the increase from 13% to a 6% increase in spending. Gas, fuel oil and other utilities are in addition to this, too. I might add that we underwent a ‘server consolidation’ exercise last year and most of our server infrastructure is now virtualised, so we’ve already taken steps towards greater energy efficiency there. Of course, there is more we can do.

So, I’ve touched on the cost implications of a peak oil scenario. The bottom line is that it will get much more expensive to run a university, despite increased efforts to reduce energy consumption and improve efficiency. What’s also worth pointing out is that as we increase the efficiency of things that consume energy, we only counteract that by using more energy in other ways. So far, innovation, growth and progress has ultimately required more energy than it’s saved3 which is partly why we’re using 11% more energy now than we were in 1990.4 This is a global problem to which, despite our best efforts, we are not immune. The OECD European countries are slowly reducing their consumption of oil over the last few years5, yet consumption pretty much everywhere else is on the rise and so the supply and cost implications still affect us all.

It’s interesting to note that four out of five recessions since 1970 have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil6, as we saw last year when it hit $140/barrel.

Oil and Recessions

A report from Chatham House, last year (with a postscript in May 2009), concluded that a ‘crunch’ in the supply of oil (i.e. Peak Oil) is likely around 2013 with prices rising to around $200. They note that although recessions temporarily reduce demand for oil, the investment in energy efficiencies decreases during recession, too, and consumers prefer to hang on to less energy efficient appliances for longer because of income fears and unemployment, both of which contribute to an even greater demand for oil as the economy improves. In addition, investment in oil production drops during a recession, so innovation in improving oil extraction from existing reserves and discovery of new reserves is slowed. Any delay in the 2013 crunch which might have come from reduced demand is, according to Chatham House, negated.

It’s all quite complex, but happily (?), even for a lay observer like myself, there is sufficient comprehensible primary research and analysis that it’s not too difficult to get a decent picture of why an energy crisis is imminent and then consider the possible implications of such a scenario.

JISC have already funded work on Scenario Planning. They describe it as:

Scenario planning or scenario thinking is a strategic planning tool used to make flexible long-term plans. It is a method for learning about the future by understanding the nature and impact of the most uncertain and important driving forces affecting our world.

Many of the regular methods for strategy development assume that the world in three to ten years’ time will not significantly differ from that of today and that an organisation will have a large impact on its environment: they assume we can mould the future. Scenario planning however assumes that the future can differ greatly from what we know today.

Participants in Scenario Planning are encouraged to ‘think the unthinkable’ and ask the question, ‘what do we need to do (now) to be ready for all scenarios?’ This is what I propose to do, together with our Business Continuity Manager, Environmental Sustainability Manager, ICT Information Security Manager and other colleagues. We need to be thinking the unthinkable a lot right now and JISC’s Strategy for energy efficiency and sustainability needs to be informed by more than the climate change debate, important though it is.

We will seek to clarify the areas of uncertainty with respect to sustainable ICT by re-framing the provision of Higher Education within an energy crisis scenario that may arguably emerge in the next ten years – the reference period for JISC’s 2010-2012 Strategy.

While the policies to mitigate an energy crisis are often complementary to those required to combat global warming, the explicit policy-making in the UK for global ‘Peak Oil’ is nothing like as advanced as climate change, yet the threat to institutional business continuity is arguably greater in the short to medium term. The project will seek to effect attitudinal and behavioural change across the sector by developing scenarios for HEIs that examine the provision and continuity of education within the context of a long-term global energy crisis and suggest actions that JISC and the community may make to forecasts widely held by energy analysts though rarely acknowledged by government policy and strategy.

This is important to me, not least because the social implications are so great, but because increasingly I’m thinking that Educational Technologists are building a house of cards. We’re investing our occupation in developing a vision of the future which there is good evidence to suggest, won’t exist.

Everything is put at risk by peak oil. The manufacture of microchips and hard drives7, the transportation of ICT equipment to consumers, the reliable supply of electricity to power equipment.8  And it’s not just the obvious things that it will affect. I was discussing this with our Business Continuity Manager recently and she pointed out that if there is no power to the fire detection and alarm system, the building has to be evacuated.9 Our UPS and backup batteries will allow for a graceful power down in some parts of the campus in the event of power cuts, but they won’t maintain business as normal. We had a three-day-week in the UK for three months in 1974, in order to conserve electricity. ‘South African style power cuts’ are forecast for the UK by 2015. What might be the government’s response to an energy crisis and how might it affect HEIs and our provision of an industrialised education? Some local authorities are beginning to take the issue into their own hands.10 I think Educational Technologists should be leading on this in our sector, too.

Postscript

The bid to JISC was not funded though I quote their feedback below:

The main reason that your proposal was not approved for funding was that, although the evaluators thought the question you posed was of great importance and one that really ought to be answered, they decided that it really did not belong in a JISC funded call for projects around Green ICT.

For example, in the question of the overall fit to call, they said:

“Whilst in the general area of sustainability and a piece of useful work, its link to the specifics of the programme is a little thin. Not about Green IT but energy uses response.”

and

“The proposal is very left of afield (sic), it is a good idea and while I am sure it would be extremely interesting to pursue; it does not, I feel, fit within the scope of the call.”

and

“Think this is a very interesting bid that is likely to produce some very thought provoking outputs. It does seem to be slightly orthognonal to the issues described in the call but I think that it would be very useful despite that. It is very clearly written and makes its case well.”

Under the question of the workplan one said:

“Most of it seems well planned. However, I am concerned about only allowing a month for the survey and dissemination. The recruitment risk is significant. Dissemination is very strong.”

In terms of value for money concern was expressed at the high cost of the scenario planning exercise and it was felt overall to be not good value for money.

Overall Comments from the evaluators were:

1. A good proposal, of value to JISC but consideration needs to be given to its relationship to the programme. It appears to be out of scope.

2. Quite interesting as a proposal and possibly work that JISC might want to consider funding under a future call. However, this does not fit well within the current call.

3. An interesting and thought provoking bid that looks to be very useful I would like to give it an A but I have a number of minor concerns as discussed above.

…the evaluation panel came to the conclusion that it was too far from the scope of the programme that we could not fund it. However the panel wanted to pass on their encouragement to seek other sources of funding for this idea and keep in touch with JISC.

  1. Somewhere in this post, I just want to say thanks to Richard Hall at DMU for encouraging me to write about this. []
  2. The ‘Hirsch Report’: Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management (PDF). An often cited report commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2005 []
  3. An extensive UK government-funded report that discusses this in detail is Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy []
  4. Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2008 []
  5. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2009 []
  6. What’s the Real Cause of the Global Recession? For a more detailed analysis of historical recessions, see Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08 []
  7. I ran across an article yesterday that describes how Intel Executives are trying to petition the US government to focus on the problem []
  8. See also, the report by the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security, which includes Yahoo! and Virgin, among others. []
  9. UPDATE: If they cannot be powered the Unviersity will either have to employ fire marshalls patroling buildings keeping a fire watch or when the battery power backups fail they will have to move to another building. In addition the University would have to go back to manual fire alarm e.g. bells, or an alternative manual warning system (e.g. person shouting being the last resort). []
  10. See the The Welsh Local Government Association’s Peak Oil and Energy Uncertainty,  and ODAC’s Preparing for Peak Oil: Local Authorities and the Energy Crisis []

15 thoughts on “Thinking the unthinkable

  1. “Peak Oil” is an interesting concept, but oil is just one of many elements which must eventually run out or experience scarcity. So, even if more oil is discovered, other important elements (like natural gas, silver, copper, iridium, etc.) will also be scarce, and their scarcity will impact at macro (societal) and micro (personal) level. It would be interesting to which natural resources will have the greatest impact on humanity as a result of their scarcity over the next 20 years – oil will be important, but not more so than fresh water. Apparently the state of California uses more fresh water annually than the entire nation of Mexico (all the gringos in LA have their own private swimming pools which, given the heat and resultant evaporation, need to be topped up every week). So this is a good research topic, but might benefit from looking at resources other than oil.

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  3. Dan McQuillan pointed me your way – hello :)

    Over at http://www.transitionnetwork.org we’re interested in the effects of peak oil and climate change on all the different aspects of our lives, and more to boot.

    mark rawlinson is quite right to say PO isn’t the only problem; it’s a range of them – likewise the solutions range from core life changes and the development of community resilience to endless techno fixes which require no change of lifestyle or consumption habits. As complexity fans might say – we need to attenuate to the complex nature of things.

    We’re just launching the development phase of our web project, which bears as much of this in mind as possible; from the social models we use to organise ourselves and our work outputs, to the technical infrastructure the project is supported on.

    The first infrastructure phase is founded on OS software running on 2nd hand servers hosted in energy efficient micro-data centres run by worker owned co-ops.

    Our long term view is that in the event of some power-down type event, we need to have distributed the information and infrastructure and know-how across the movement.

    So we’re keeping in mind distributed servers running on locally generated energy patched together across mesh networks. Sort of thing. With regular face to face meetings for knowledge cafe/skillswap group knowledge exchange events.

    The key is to bear this vision in mind *now* while getting on with today’s needs so we don’t find ourselves down a blind alleyway in the future.

    This reaches across everything – for example, as we start our development we cannot afford to have all the knowledge locked away in one person’s head, so we’re starting as a group with shared practices and co-operative principles.

    Happy to share/discuss/swap notes if you fancy.

    And you’re not being gloomy; you’re being bright and facing up to facts.

    Yes people might think this is depressing, and they might be a bit bored of hearing about all these things, but that is because they have their heads in the sand :)

    • Thanks for your comment and encouragement, Ed. I would like to chat with you some more about the work you are doing with Transition Network. By co-incidence, I went to my first Transition meeting last night, here in Lincoln.

      I agree that it’s more complex than I’ve presented above. Other forms of energy such as coal have their own problems, there are geo-politics that I haven’t mentioned and fundamental economic and political implications to addressing some of these challenges. I’ve chosen to focus on Oil for this bid proposal, because there is a growing amount of research and analysis which indicates a problem of supply and therefore price, within JISC’s strategic time frame of 2010-2020. It is also weaved into the fabric of our way of life and I find easy to relate to real world problems. Finally, the issue of Climate Change, while being our #1 long-term problem, has gone mainstream and the research into that area is already funded by JISC. With my focus on oil and energy, I’m trying to bring a neglected but pressing issue to the education community’s attention.

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  5. Re: Impact of external factors

    Hi Josh, I did my Masters Thesis on Green IT in 1989, wrote Green Paths to the Information Society in 1994, worked on Local Agenda 21 for Lewisham Council, lead on Green Policy at Lewisham College and helped create the Creekside Environmental Education Centre in Deptford and think that building the Participative Knowledge Economy (Andrew Cohill calls this the Knowledge Democracy) requires both The creative interactive and participative use of technologies and an ecological awareness of local and planetary needs from which we can build the new institutions that we need. We neither have the institutions that we need nor the understanding of the participatory behaviours with which we can create them. Happy to discuss. fred

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