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The age of intermittency

Image: Geograph UK

Physicist David Korowicz once posed this thought experiment: imagine that all of the computer chips made since the financial crash of 2008 had some flaw that caused them to suddenly stop working.  Could we simply go back to the conditions of 2008?

The answer, of course, is that if all of the computer chips made in the last decade were to fail, we would face an unimaginable breakdown in the global economy.  This is simply because we did not add all of the new computer chips to the system that existed in 2008; we used them to replace that system.

This is entirely understandable.  The new chips were faster and more energy efficient than those made before 2008.  So why would anyone keep the old ones.  In the same way, we no longer have operational steam engines or heavy (working) horses outside of museums.  Petrol, diesel and even electric vehicles are far more efficient.

Korowicz’s point, however, is that our pursuit of efficiency comes with the high price tag of fragility.  Computer chips may not, in and of themselves, be at risk of failing.  They are, however, dependent upon vast complex infrastructures that are increasingly strained.  One such system is electricity supply; demand for which is outstripping the deployment of nuclear and renewable energy generation.  The relatively straightforward process of swapping renewables and nuclear for fossil fuels has been thwarted by the demand that these must simultaneously power the electrification of the economy and provide the gazillowatts of new energy required to power an entirely new “internet of things” – of which the voracious energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is just a tiny part.

Another, perhaps less obvious dependency is on the world’s dwindling supply of computer memory.  Many of the systems we have built in recent years – the ubiquitous smart phone, for example – involve relatively low energy and memory at the point of use, while demanding high energy and memory consumption in the (datacentre) communications infrastructure.  Again, this memory shortage is already upon us prior to the development of the internet of things and its cryptocurrency payment system.

This points to a real world intermittency issue that until now has been treated as mere hypothesis.  Most often, intermittency is raised in relation to two renewable energy technologies – solar panels and wind turbines.  Without conventional (fossil fuel and/or nuclear) backup and/or large-scale storage (batteries, pumped hydro, flywheels, etc.) we would have electricity shortages when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.  But intermittency can be a general problem; and not just with electricity.  Those spinning hard drive disks at the datacentre regularly fail; and at a faster rate than we experience with our home computers.  What happens when there are insufficient replacements?  Or, to be more precise, whose systems go offline?

These are not issues that we tend to think about because we prefer to maintain the illusion that someone else has got our backs.  An infinite supply of computer memory (and all of the other components of the global communications system) will simply be there for whatever purpose we choose to dream up.  In the same way, the national (and increasingly international) energy grids will continue to provide us with all of the energy we want.

These core assumptions undoubtedly underpin the recent decision of several UK banks to dispense with a large part of what remains of the post-2008 branch networks.  As Rachel Green at Business Insider reports:

“Over the last two years, more than 1,000 branches in the UK have closed in response to the shifting consumer preference toward digital banking…

“Consumers in the UK are increasingly reliant on mobile banking. Over 6 million UK consumers used banking apps in 2016, up 11% from the previous year, according to a study by the British Bankers Association and EY. There was a 30% increase in the number of UK consumers who use apps to manage their savings, and a 46% increase in those using apps to track their credit card spending. It’s becoming necessary for banks to adapt their offerings to consumers’ changing banking preferences by closing branches and investing more in digital offerings.”

It is notable that on the same day that Lloyds and RBS announced their switch to digital banking, the customers of another UK bank – Nationwide – were experiencing intermittency issues of their own.  As Paul Kunert at The Register noted:

“Nationwide UK’s online presence is anything but this morning, what with an unspecified tech infrastructure glitch that has prevented customers across Blighty from logging into their accounts or using ATMs.”

Insofar as the old branch infrastructure continues to exist, intermittency of this kind can be mitigated.  Those customers who are desperate for cash can still go to a physical branch and use a cheque for cash.  Others may be able to use cheques to pay for goods and services.  But the more the branch infrastructure is withdrawn, the harder it is to do business.

It should be obvious enough that an entirely digital banking system is vulnerable to several intermittencies that would have been far less of an issue for the branch networks that existed at the end of the twentieth century.  Cyber-attacks, system failures and network failures each has the capacity to crash the banking system.  But perhaps the biggest threat – in the UK at least – is our increasing dependence upon renewable electricity generation as our stocks of fossil fuels dwindle.

Again, the unspoken assumption is that the Grid engineers have got it covered.  Most people in Britain today have grown up in a surplus energy economy.  Only the over-50s can remember the days when power cuts were a fact of life.  But behind the scenes, renewable electricity generation is placing a huge strain on an electricity grid that was not designed for decentralised and intermittent technology.  As National Grid’s recent Ten Year Statement warns:

“When commissioned, the Western HVDC [high-voltage direct current] will significantly increase the capacity of our network. However in the years to come, the NETS [National Electricity Transmission System] will potentially face capacity deficits in a number of regions due to the following factors:

Increasing quantities of wind generation connected across the Scottish networks will double north-to-south transfer requirements within ten years from Scotland to England.

We have also found that at times of low wind output, more network capacity could be required to meet the south-to-north transfer requirements for demand in the north of England and Scotland.

Large growth of around 5GW in low carbon generation and interconnectors in the north of England, combined with increased Scottish generation, will increase export requirements into the English Midlands.

High growth in the next decade of up to 10GW in generation coming from offshore wind on the east coast connecting to East Anglia. Transfer of power from this region to the south of England will risk stressing this region of the network

New interconnections coming in will potentially place increased stress on the southern English network when these interconnectors export power out of Great Britain.”

In other words, the intermittency problems are not so much being solved as being exported from one region to the next and ultimately to the continent; although at each turn the risk of power shortages (and surges) increases.  The stock response from critics of renewable electricity is that we need to keep on burning fossil fuels – either fracked shale gas or coal, using carbon capture and storage (CCS).  In the UK, both options are fanciful.  Profitable UK shale gas simply does not exist; and what remains of Britain’s coal industry is producing less coal than was being mined at the height of the 1984-85 miners ‘strike.  In any case, economically viable CCS technology continues to elude us.

The stark reality for the UK is a future in which we are increasingly dependent upon imported electricity and gas to keep the lights on and – more importantly – to keep operational those parts of the cornucopian internet of things that do get built.  This is why the techno-fantasy is both dangerous and immoral; it distracts us from the serious debate that we should be having about how we recreate resilient local systems – like bank branches and stores that can trade in paper cheques and cash – that are less vulnerable in the coming age of intermittency.

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