The upside of downtime: using energy wisely

Dr Ben McGarry Dr Ben McGarry
Principal, Decarbonisation
Mitchell Hardwick Mitchell Hardwick
Mechanical Engineer
21 June 2022
6 min read

Life in pre-industrial days was no doubt simpler – a time before machines ever existed and your work day finished when the sun went down. Like it or not, you couldn't tend to your crops after dinner. These quiet agrarians organised their time around seasons and the free heat and light provided by sunlight, following what nature told them. Until the Second Industrial Revolution came. 

Almost overnight, human work shifted from farms to factories and days became bookended by the ticking clock rather than the spinning earth. Electricity, steel production, chemical creation and the internal combustion engine helped people produce more, travel further and spread ideas faster, but at a huge cost – not only to the family unit but the entire environment, as fossil fuels were extracted relentlessly to feed this new economy. 

While Planet Earth suffered, the human race hasn't come off lightly either. Electricity, flexible working and a pandemic have combined to create a world not only where people work longer hours than ever before, but more of that work takes place in non-traditional hours, and we are paying the price with increasing rates of mental and physical health impacts.

Yet in the decarbonised world of the future, renewable energy from the sun and wind will be much cheaper and workplaces' energy of choice, although storing that energy in a fully-renewable grid comes with technical and cost challenges today. Our laptops and Zoom calls and PowerPoint presentations will be powered by very cheap energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and more expensive stored energy at other times. What if the computational power we use every work day was tied to the availability of cheap renewable energy that threw us back to agrarian times?

Just as our ancestors sowed oats when the sun came up, we could maximise our activity when nature says so – granting our planet and our head a favour at the same time. Could the abundance of renewable energy be the silver bullet that changes our working behaviours and improves our mental health as well as the planet's health?

Why on Mother Earth would we do this?

For all of its benefits, renewable energy is more difficult and expensive to store over time compared to fossil fuels. In a fully renewable grid, when you run your oven at night time, it will either be coming from wind energy in real-time, or from an energy storage system somewhere such as a battery, pumped hydro scheme, or renewable fuel. When renewable energy becomes de rigueur, clear ground rules for best practice usage will naturally emerge. 

As the dollar cost, social cost and environmental cost of carbon in the future increases, the value of being able to adjust the timing of our energy consumption also increases. Savvy consumers can use that to their advantage, by choosing electricity retail plans that are much cheaper when real-time renewable energy is readily accessible somewhere on the grid, for example during daylight hours or when the wind's blowing.

And this will be a global issue. Countries that don't have the resources to create renewable energy will be importing it, and/or potentially paying a high price for fossil fuels that reflect their carbon impact. Renewable energy sources and sinks will move closer together, in both a market sense and a physical sense. As they have always done, companies will move their most energy-intensive operations to where low cost energy can enhance competitive advantage.

Projects such as Singapore's Sun Cable will proliferate which, in that case, is creating a new market and physical link that pulls plentiful Australian sunshine through sub-sea power cables. It means Australia is poised for a massive clean re-industrialisation as global demand for clean energy and green products accelerates, creating opportunity for value-added onshore manufacturing and other energy-intensive operations such as data processing.

It's already underway

Data centres are already flexing their load to match renewable energy availability. Google, in its aim to become carbon-free 24/7 everywhere it has data centres, started shifting the timing of intensive, but not urgent, computational tasks to coincide with the local availability of renewable energy (compressing YouTube videos to lower quality versions for low bandwidth are an example of an energy-intensive but not time-critical task). 

Of course, there are benefits to ongoing 24/7 computational power – just look at what Folding@home achieved. On this platform, people across the world donated spare computer processing power during idle periods, contributing to medical research that helped create the first COVID-19 vaccines. 

While we obviously don't want to go backwards and lose benefits that have been achieved, what if there was a prioritisation system so that computers automatically delegated certain tasks to be done at times when they had access to real-time renewable energy? AI already helps manage the intermittency of renewable energy by regulating the shifting and usage of energy, maximising demand flexibility and enabling the development of strategy, policy and planning around current use and future demands. 

The need for flexibility

Of course, there would be exceptions. We have become accustomed to on-demand e-commerce, streaming, texting and TikTok at all hours of the day and night. While it will be impossible to dial back this 24/7 culture, perhaps workplaces could be the first cabs off the rank to optimise their operating costs, carbon footprint and staff well-being. 

Changing our behaviour to use energy in sync with its generation is just as reasonable a solution today as it was in pre-industrial times. Until the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of fossil fuels, intermittency was a way of life. Our ancestors adapted to a world powered by wind and water by adapting their energy demand to supply. Windmills and sailboats moved only with the wind, and dams were built to store water in mill ponds – the forebears of today's hydropower reservoirs that will become more critical in a renewable future. 

Hydrogen and other chemical forms of energy storage will also play a much greater role in delivering back-up energy when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. But what else could be done?

Better balance, greater productivity 

What if everyone had to adapt to work based on computing power and renewable energy availability? Could what we miss out on (in terms of the availability of cheap energy-on-demand) be made up for in better mental and physical health to actually perform at our best? Multinational powerhouse 3M launched its 15 per cent programme in 1948, a bold move for a post-war American company that paid off. 

The programme, which encourages employees to use 15 per cent of their paid time to pursue their own dreams and ideas, has produced many of the company’s best-selling products. It probably inspired the likes of Google and Hewlett-Packard to introduce similar programmes. Scheduling work around availability of renewable energy could even include our own hard-wired circadian rhythms, the natural ebb and flow of human energy regulation.

Slowing down doesn't mean being less productive. It's ironic that we create technology that saves us time, only for us to use that extra time to do yet more. A greater irony still, is that our latest technology might just decelerate our hurried lives and take us a step back in time.

Dr Ben McGarry
Written by
Dr Ben McGarry

Mitchell Hardwick
Written by
Mitchell Hardwick

Mitch channels his engineering experience into a number of half-finished personal projects, including his van-mounted microgrid and solar hydroponic system.

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