Dr. Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California and since a couple months runs the popular energy blog Do the Math which takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth.

He gets asked about many things concerning the energy challenge we face, but here he gets asked about the smart grid idea:

" What role do you think the smart grid has to play in the future?

Tom Murphy: I'd sooner have smart people than a smart grid, deciding that it's in our collective interest to scale back energy use at a personal level. Failing that, a smart grid helps distribute demand in such a way that intermittent renewables are more easily accommodated (using energy when it's available). Some things may work well like this, but I don't think this is a realistic way to hide variable energy supply from the consumer. They may be irked that they lose control over when the laundry decides to start, possibly resulting in clothes smelling of mildew, or that they are not present to fold clothes at 2 AM when the dryer is finished. Loss of control may not play well. If, instead, informed people accepted limitations of future energy supplies, and modified their own behaviour accordingly under their own control, we would break the habit of people taking energy for granted: an attitude that the smart grid attempts to preserve. We want greater personal awareness of energy, not less."

A question about energy price development:

" Oil companies are mainly driven by the aim of pleasing shareholders, which generally means pursuing large dividends and high share prices. Surely this profit seeking mentality is detrimental to the advancement of green energy technologies, as the companies have little incentive to seriously invest in new types of energy whilst old, cheaper types still exist. What are your views? Is there any way to change this dynamic?

Tom Murphy: I sense that plenty of people are waiting to cash in on green energy, and investment begins to flourish when energy prices soar.  But as soon as high energy prices trigger recession, demand flags, prices crash, and the volatility wipes out many green efforts.  A year or two of high prices is simply not long enough for a transformation, which takes decades to accomplish.  I hope that we can tolerate smoothly and continuously escalating energy prices for conventional sources, but those high prices hurt large segments of the (conventional) economy and self-generate volatility.  In principle, governments could "artificially" keep energy prices high enough to maintain the impetus for developing alternatives, pumping the revenue into a national alternative energy infrastructure.  But governments are bound by voters who simply don't want sustained high energy prices.  I don't know how to evade this dynamic in a functioning democracy, except via education about the challenges we face - including a sober confrontation of the fact that failure is a likely result of our not bucking up to the challenge."

22 Mar 2012 - 2:05
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