Playing the Energy Game

I mentioned last week that I was planning to play the Energy Game based on David MacKay’s book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (SEWTHA) at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. Well, I’ve been true to my word, although I arrived there slightly breathless after taking the Victorian tunnels from South Kensington tube station. It turns out the Dana Centre is at the other side of the museum, nearer Gloucester Road station.

Anyway, the “game” was worthwhile. It involved adjusting the UK’s energy supply and demand by using two columns of magnetic blocks to represent (decarbonised) energy supply (different flavours of wind and solar power and so on) and demand alleviation measures. We were formed into (moderated) groups to carry out this exercise and then presented our solutions in a final plenary session. All very MBA.

The attendees were all sensible and well-informed. I was therefore quite surprised by some of the outcomes. I also felt the game constrained thinking a little too much. To improve it significantly would require a software implementation and I wonder if the organisers will consider creating one.

The attendees as a whole seemed very accepting of biofuels (not our group, though, but it took quite some discussion) even though the small contribution to our energy supply suggested took up 20% of the UK’s land! There was also a general distrust of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and of nuclear power. Partly this was because the constraints of the game allowed only a very small proportion of the UK’s energy to be obtained from these sources, which are not entirely renewable. I felt that the idea that we could only use a small amount of nuclear power because existing known reserves had to be divided equally around the world to be particularly suspect.

Tony Robinson suggested last night that Neanderthal man died out during a previous episode of climate change (a Heinrich cooling event during the last ice age) because he failed to trade, unlike our own ancestors. If we are to solve the energy problem, then it seems to me trade must be at the heart of the solution. For me, the Energy Game as it is now builds in too much UK self-sufficiency (though is inconsistent in addressing the issue, since it does allow desert-based concentrated solar power (CSP) to be a large part of the solution). The UK is an arbitrary market in the modern world, for starters: why not English or European self-sufficiency?

Incidentally, if we are not prepared to build the Supergrid, then those countries poorly endowed with renewable energy relative to their consumption will be obliged to bid up the cost of the world’s uranium supplies and go nuclear. They will end up with more than their “fair share” because other countries will be better off using solar, wind etc. Whether the UK is one of these countries should be for the game to discover.

The game did allow energy price to be taken into consideration. This didn’t stop most groups spending a fortune on rooftop (or other) PV in the UK.

There are several aspects of the Energy Game that could be better captured in a computerised version:

1. An easier and more accurate cost analysis. Costs of demand management actions (e.g. improved insulation of buildings) also need to be included (it wasn’t on Thursday).

2. Warnings, consequences and implicit assumptions. For example, above a certain proportion of wind energy it’s necessary to either store the energy (with some losses) or trade it (also involving costs, e.g. for transmission lines). The game could produce a report detailing technical and political assumptions. In particular, it might highlight the importance of political action to create as wide and as depoliticised an energy market as possible (Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, perhaps). The game should also highlight problems such as how flying is to be powered (our team had no liquid fuel in the mix!), and note the food-supply implications of the use of biofuels.

3. A better appreciation of the time element, which was totally absent on Thursday. Instead of simply adding energy blocks, the team could specify ramp-up and ramp-down rates (and curve shapes – straight line or S shaped) for energy technologies and demand management measures. Costs could also be allowed to evolve over time, e.g. PV in particular might gradually become cheaper, in the same way as other technologies have done in the past. The game could then show you the energy mix at certain dates (e.g. 2020, 2050 – it might have built-in retirement dates for existing power-generation facilities) and give a traffic-light report on whether specific targets have been met (e.g. 20% renewables by 2020, 20% emission reduction by 2020, 80/95% emission reductions by 2050 etc.).

In short, I think you could go to town on this game in a computer programme based on the magnetic version. Your moderators would need a kit consisting of laptops and projectors (and venues would need screens or white walls!), but these are readily available these days.

Nevertheless, the Energy Game is already a worthwhile exercise.