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Speculations on Innovation in the Renewable Energy Sector

Wright's Law , a the lesser known cousin of Moore's Law, states, that in most industries, unit-costs decrease by X percent for any doubling of the production volume. In addition, a growing amount of money and attention focused on a particular product tends to increase the opportunity for internal innovation to be successful, specially where there are high degrees of freedom and substitutability without consumers noticing a difference. Internal innovation tends to be focused on making existing products better or cheaper while external innovation focuses on what customers might actually need or want. Internal innovation is often incremental, low friction and often invisible, while external innovation is often disruptive and requires changes in customer behavior. While the cost of solar, wind or battery technologies has dropped significantly over the last decades, the current research pipeline shows plenty of potential for significant efficiency improvements. If I were a cleantech

The case for batch-mode electricity

Historically the service provided by electrical utilities has been that of 24/7 instant power, available at the flip of a switch. The keys to providing such a service are power sources which can produce electricity on demand at any time as well as a power grid with plenty of spare capacity for extreme circumstances. In the retail price of electricity, the cost of generation is often a small part (around 5-10 cents) and dwarfed by the cost of the delivery network as well as the cost of over-provisioning in order to ensure a high level of service availability. The decarbonization of the energy sector is putting pressure on this model from two sides. On one hand, we are replacing fossil fuel power plants which can produce electricity on more or less on demand with wind and solar plants which produce electricity intermittently based on the current availability of wind or sunlight. Wind and solar generators can be combined with sufficient storage into a hybrid power plant which can largely

The History of Dehorsification

De-carbonization will require in particular a radical transformation of the energy and transportation sectors over the next few decades. Many people find this daunting or fear that it might be not even be possible in such a time-frame. Looking at the history of de-horsification, a similarly radical transformation of the transportation sector in the first half of the 20th century shows that such things are indeed possible, but can be tricky, disruptive and take a long time. At the beginning of the 20th century, the horse was undoubtedly the workhorse of urban transportation for both goods and people, while the new horseless carriages were expensive and unreliable playthings for crazy, rich people. Less than 50 years later the roles are reversed and most horses today likely travel more miles standing in a trailer pulled by a SUV than on their own feet. In 1900, horses were very common - nearly as common per capita as cars are today. New York City counted over 200'000 working horses

Lessons from the Pandemic: Tragedy of the Commons vs. Social Contracts

The recent pandemic has provided a lot of insights into how societies and governments around the world respond to the kind of collective crisis, where the potential harm faced by each member of the community does not primarily depend on their direct actions, but also on the actions of anybody around them. We can hope to draw some lessons from these insights for the the climate crisis, which presents similar challenges but over a much longer time and at global scale. On the bright side, lessons from the pandemic have shown that eventually most governments and communities have eventually responded quite decisively and to a level that might not have been expected.  One specific episode that happened in Switzerland around June 6th 2020, I found particularly insightful: the question of wearing masks in public transport. In the days leading up to June 6th, an estimated less than 5% of passengers in public were wearing masks. Despite the government having strongly recommended it and repeatedl

Lessons from the Pandemic: The Bias towards Inaction

In the context of the climate crisis, I have been wondering why we have so far not been acting more decisively to prevent what could credibly turn into the largest civilisatory catastrophe in recent human history (at least in absolute terms).  The pandemic has provided an opportunity to observe the rapid unfolding of a wide range of collective and government crisis responses, that could help to identify some pattern. The  trolley problem  is a famous thought experiment to illustrate an ethical dilemma where the needs of the many might outweigh the needs of the few : a trolley is assumed to be barreling down the track towards a group of people that it would most likely hit while a bystander has the opportunity to move a switch, which will redirect the trolley on another track, where it will likely hit a single other person. While moral philosophers  have a more nuanced perspective on the moral equivalence of action vs. inaction, of doing vs. allowing ,  the laws and norms of most commun