Why Clean Energy is Like the iPhone

October 31, 2020


You’re probably reading this on your phone. If not, take it out your pocket and look at it.

It’s a smartphone, isn’t it? Think how often you use it and all the useful things it helps you do. Now, think back. How long since you bought your first smartphone?

It will be about 10 years, most likely a bit less. Not long. Yet they are now ubiquitous: virtually everyone, everywhere has one and uses it for hours every day.

It shows how quickly new technology can take off. The original iPhone was only introduced in 2007 and – bizarre as it now seems – it wasn’t regarded as revolutionary back then.

Check out this Forbes magazine cover published nine months after the iPhone was released. (above)

And Forbes wasn’t alone. The iPhone was just “one more entrant into an already very busy space,” according to the boss of the company that made Blackberrys. Remember them?

Not only have smartphones crushed all other phone technologies, they have upended dozens of other industries too. They’ve killed the camera and powered the rise of social media and dating apps. They’ve decimated the traditional taxi industry.

So what has this got to do with energy?

It proves an important point about all successful new technologies: it is easy to see why they were so transformative in hindsight, much harder to predict how they will reshape our world in advance.

Which brings me to green technology – wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar panels and batteries, that kind of thing.

If you still think adopting these new technologies will be an expensive chore, think again.

Green tech is at a tipping point where it could take off explosively – just like the smartphone did. And, just like the smartphone, it could bring a revolution in how we do much more than just create energy.

So why did the smartphone do so well? 

Its success was down to a unique convergence of technologies. For the first time touchscreens, batteries, data networks, compact computer chips, micro-sensors and more, were cheap, reliable and small enough to make a $600 (£460) smartphone possible.

And as demand for smartphones picked up, manufacturers learned how to make those technologies even cheaper and better too.

Something similar is now happening with green tech.

After years of development, it is becoming much cheaper and more effective. The world’s best solar power schemes are now the “cheapest source of electricity in history”, the International Energy Agency (IEA), which analyses energy markets, said this month.

“Renewable energy is likely to penetrate the energy system more quickly than any fuel ever seen in history,” predicts Spencer Dale, the chief economist at the oil giant BP.

And BP is putting its money where Mr Dale’s mouth is. It’s pledged to cut its oil and gas production by 40% in the next 10 years, and to plough money into developing their low-carbon business instead.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, announced a £160m investment that he said would see offshore wind producing more than half of current UK electricity demand by 2030.

That’s right. An investment of just £160m in offshore wind when the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, in Somerset, is costing at least £22.5 billion.

How is it so cheap? Because the UK government won’t be paying for the new wind turbines, the private sector will. 

In the UK, offshore wind will soon be profitable without subsidy. Indeed, developers may soon have to pay for access to our continental shelf.

Think what that means. You don’t need governments offering inducements for companies to build new renewable power, they’ll be paying us for the privilege of doing so.

But that is just the beginning. What happens when the world doubles down on cutting carbon?

The European Union has already signed up to a €1tn-plus green stimulus plan. China says it is on board too. 

At the United Nation’s General Assembly meeting in New York this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unconditional commitment that China would cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2060

Japan and South Korea both announced a 2050 net zero pledge this week and if Joe Biden wins the American presidential election, he has similarly ambitious carbon cutting plans.

Both Biden and the EU have warned they will introduce carbon tariffs to penalise countries that haven’t abated emissions selling high-carbon products in their markets.

That’ll be a powerful encouragement for the rest of the world to follow suit. But even if they don’t, we’d have America, China and Europe – half of world emissions and more than half of world GDP – doubling down on cutting carbon.

That means even more investment in wind, solar, batteries, electric cars, electrolysis, carbon capture and storage, and any other green technology you can think of.

Just like with the smartphone, it becomes a virtuous cycle.

Let’s now do a thought experiment.

The big challenge with renewables is what they call in the trade “intermittency” – the fact that you don’t get any power when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. It is a big problem. Nobody wants the power to go off. 

RethinkX, an American think tank specialising in blue-skies thinking on the future of industries, says we need to change our whole mindset about how we generate power

We are used to worrying about the costs of overcapacity – producing more power than is needed. That’s because the fuel used to generate power is expensive. 

Not so with renewables. Once you’ve built them, the power they generate from the wind and sun comes virtually free of charge.

RethinkX says this will do to energy what the internet and smartphones have done to data. Thirty years ago there was an inherent physical cost to every newspaper printed or photo taken. Now that everything is digital, the only limit on how much we read or post on Instagram is the number of hours in our day.

It argues that instead of simply replacing existing fossil fuel plants with wind and solar – and then worrying about the cost of plugging those big intermittency gaps – we should just build more and more and more wind and solar. Perhaps several times the capacity of the existing electricity grid.

Remember, the more we build, the cheaper it gets. So long as we spread them over a wide enough area we’ll always get some power. And we can plug the few small gaps remaining with batteries or other power plants. 

And here’s the thing. On sunny and windy days we’ll have a huge surplus of electricity at pretty much no extra cost.


18 Responses to “Why Clean Energy is Like the iPhone”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I truly look forward to when crowded cities which today have streets packed with ICE and diesel engine vehicles which spew hot, toxic gases while the honking traffic crawls along are transformed into crowded cities with streets packed with EVs with honking traffic crawls along.

    • Keith Omelvena Says:

      It’s surely transformational. 🙂

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Yes, we can transform society stupidly or we can do it wisely. Public mass transit can get everyone where they need to go without such traffic. Very cheap public high speed rail will be fought fanatically by the lunatic right wing until it’s built, and then everyone will sit back, enjoy the ride (a lot), stop flying any overland trips shorter than a thousand miles (or so, depending on how good a network we build), and wonder why the hell anyone would resist it.
      It will be a “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” kind of thing.

  2. redskylite Says:

    This aligns with what I’ve seen and participated in my working life. The Apple II P.C was introduced in 1977 and the IBM 5150 P.C took off in 1981. Before the introduction of the PC and internet we would be all writing letters and waiting for our comments to be published. How the PC and internet took off is truly amazing and the transformation to businesses and social life is awesome, almost unbelievable.

    There is no reason why the current developments in energy production will not follow suit, except for vested interests and corruption. And that did not stop other technologies from succeeding.

    It may all come a shade too late, but will come and hopefully save a considerable proportion of humanity from extinction, if not all.

  3. […] The original iPhone was only introduced in 2007 and ? bizarre as it now seems ? it wasn't regarded as revolutionary back then. Check out this Forbes … View full source […]

  4. There’s certainly been a revolution in energy that’s like the iPhone, but it’s not with renewables — it’s with fracked natural gas! Smart phones and fracked gas both came out of nowhere, brought to us mostly by the private sector, and went on to dominate their respective areas of the economy. Smartphones decimated the camera industry just like fracked gas displaced the coal fired power industry (at least in this country). Gas is flexible just like smartphones. Renewables are not flexible — they’re erratic. Renewables could never have gotten as far as they have without flexible gas backup. Renewable leader, California, gets almost half of its electricity from gas. Why do you think they had the Porter Ranch gas leak? They need to store backup gas somewhere and, of course, they’re still storing it there.

    Renewables are actually more like Apple’s Newton — something that looks on the surface to be the next step. They’ve had some minor success, just like the Newton spawned some minor competitors, like the Palm Pilot.

    If you want to see something that looks like a real Moore’s law for energy, take a look at the energy density of nuclear power:


    • Keith Omelvena Says:

      Shame fracking has proved to be one of the quickest ways to reduce financial investment to zero then. LOL

    • Keith Omelvena Says:

      Always thought Libertarians were actually closet communists. Joined at the hip to massive centralised power systems, rather than generating your own rooftop solar, is a solution Marx himself would love you for comrade Dombroski.

      • Nuclear is something the government could do that would have proven energy, greenhouse gas reduction, environmental, national security and, yes, safety benefits.

        Michael Shellenberger offers a basic outline:

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Fracking was brought to us by a combination of private industry and government corruption often called fascism. It was created at the secret Cheney energy meeting shortly after the ascension of Bush the Lesser.

      Nukes have had 70 years with massive subsidies and unimaginably large externality potentials, but couldn’t even compete with coal which couldn’t compete with gas which can’t compete with onshore or offshore wind and solar PV with batteries; CSP; and now geothermal.

      “Energy density” is a made-up concept that means nothing and depends on externalizing immense off-site harm. Nukes and fossils wreck enormous amounts of land, water, and sky and are only dense in the way that chemical industrial agriculture is when one ignores air pollution, freshwater eutrophication, ocean dead zones, soil erosion, soil community “simplification”, extinctions; climate catastrophe; cancer and other health effects… “Energy density” is a fake quality industry PR flacks, lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians made up to give fossil and fissile fuels a seeming advantage over much-better-in-every-way clean safe renewables.

      Electricity is as “dense” as an energy source can be—or needs to be. Clothesline paradox energies like passive and active solar water and space heating and cooling are also as dense as anything can be, taking up no room at all.

  5. dumboldguy Says:

    Clean energy is NOT like the cellphone. I wish people would stop trying so hard to conflate a technology that is beneficial to the individual, cheap, and useful in everyday life and business to “renewable energy”.

    And the talk of “by 2030, by 2040, by 2050, and even BY 2060 should tell you how serious the money interests are about all of it. Trump would be proud of this kind of twisted thinking and ignoring the facts (after he got a fifth grader to explain it to him).

  6. […] Why Clean Energy is Like the iPhone — Read on climatecrocks.com/2020/10/31/why-clean-energy-is-like-the-iphone/amp/ […]

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