Lean Energy

The application of pull to meet communities’ energy needs in conditions of energy-famine.


Overlaps and intersections

1. Space heating, space cooling and air conditioning.

2. Light: street lighting, interiors by day and by night.

3. Energy embodied in materials (mining, processing, transport) and feedstocks (plastics, paint).

4. Industrial processes: machine tools, carpentry, pumps, process heat and refrigeration.

5. Service processes: retail, medical, dental, catering, research, education administration, etc.

6. Information processing, storage and transmission.

7. Travel and transport.

8. Agricultural production, food processing and distribution.

9. Construction.

10. Domestic equipment and processes.

11. Waste treatment and disposal.


When thinking about making energy-sense of the future, it is helpful to see it as a sequence of three related tasks:L72


1. Energy conservation

This is about looking for ways of doing what we are already doing, or planning to do, but with much reduced dependence on energy (for a checklist/reminder of energy’s uses—double-counting included—see sidebar).

Industrial advance and economic growth can be understood as a story of getting more value from less—extracting more from each unit of input (land, labour, materials, financial capital, energy). In the case of the use of energy, this sequence of improvement has been dramatic and sustained. Compare the vast boilers of a Victorian factory with the generators and electric motors of today, or open coal fires with today’s central heating. Some processes are less energy efficient, in the sense that energy is used where none was needed before—the use of electrical equipment to do what was formerly done by hand, for example, or the case of being driven to school instead of walking. But, once the use of energy for a particular task has been established, ways are generally found to do the same thing with less energy.

This first stage in the sequence of lean energy is to get better results (in terms of energy-efficiency) than those likely to be achieved through companies’ general pursuit of competitive advantage. Some guidelines and inspiration are provided by the energy analysts Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. Among the conclusions they draw from their collective experience, there are two with special relevance to lean energy.L73

First, there is the iterative approach to solving complex problems. They point out that, if you make a substantial improvement in one part of a system, it is likely that it will open the way to another. That is, a sequence of possibility opens up. An illustration of this which will be familiar to anyone who visits a small local supermarket is the problem of getting rid of heat. The chillers produce a lot of heat. So the shop gets hot. So the chillers have to work harder. So the shop gets hotter. There is a positive feedback of energy-inefficiency. But suppose that a way is now found of breaking that cycle, by ducting the hot air outside: the shop cools down, so the chillers have to work less hard, so they produce less heat, so the fresh vegetables sell better, sales rise, energy costs fall, profits rise, success breeds success, and the owner discovers that she can afford a proper temperature control system for the whole shop.

Hawken et al’s own iconic example of this principle is the Hypercar. We shouldn’t take it too literally, because the result is an extremely lightweight car, which could be tricky to drive on a windy day, and would surely grind to a halt if going uphill fully loaded with family, luggage, and the dog (a system has to be powerful enough to cope with its peaks) but it has become a landmark in the literature. A smaller engine makes it possible to install a lighter suspension, so it can get by with a less robust chassis, so most of the components can be downsized, which opens the way to a smaller engine . . . Although you probably wouldn’t want to drive the theoretical endpoint of that process, the principle is good. And they offer many other (more realistic, and now widely-recognised) examples—improved designs in pumping systems, building design and construction, appliances, and city planning: it is all about seeing the system as a whole, rather than as a reductionist set of individual problems.L74

Hawken et al’s second (closely-related) piece of advice draws philosophical lessons from eating a lobster. There are some good meaty chunks to be found (in the claws and tail). But if you stop there, you have really missed the point, because half of what the lobster has to offer is hidden in the bits that are hard to find, and it takes persistence and a certain amount of know-how to extract them. In the case of energy conservation, that half really matters; it can take you to the point when (in Hawken et al’s phrase) you can start to “tunnel through the cost barrier”—the breakthrough when you are getting close to understanding, or at last taking into account, the whole system. Instead of tinkering with a system that is full of contradictions, you get consistency—a common purpose. Now the big cost savings can come.L75

With the application of these principles, significant improvements in energy efficiency can be expected. And yet, there are limits. Even lobsters are eventually finished. Energy solutions on the scale of the local supermarket are not enough. The supermarket itself is just one component in isolation. What we are looking for is energy efficiency transformations in a whole economy. And that takes us to structural change.


2. Structural change

Structural change does not stop at making energy services more efficient. It is focused on doing without them. It looks at ways of getting the results—the food and joy—we want with minimum recourse to goods, services, transport and processing in all their forms. It is not about making the regrettable necessities of life more energy-efficient, but avoiding having to use them at all. It is the essence of Lean Logic’s case. It is about doing things in a completely different way, minimising the scale of the intermediate economy—or coping after its comprehensive collapse. At the heart of it, it is about the proximity principle, which provides services in the place where they are to be used and matures towards a closed-loop system. That means localisation.

Consider the sequences of elaboration described in the entry on the intermediate economy—notably in the Story of Pots. In our imagination we could unravel that elaboration, starting at the end, and deintensifying, backwards, step-by-step. This would be very much harder than it sounds—borderline impossible, in fact—because there is a ratchet effect here: it is all too easy to go forward but (almost) impossible to go backwards. The elaborations and infrastructure of a large-scale civic society are there for a reason: they are part of the intensification needed by a large population. On a very much smaller scale—when we are thinking about cooling down a corner shop rather than ratcheting back a civilisation—the principles of intelligent energy conservation are a life-saver. But, on the large scale of step-by-step unravelling of complexity, we have to face the fact that it is fairly conclusively a one-way process: you can intensify—you can build a more and more elaborate political economy without even fully realising what you are doing—but deintensification is orders of magnitude harder.

The exception to that statement comes with the possibility of a profound, population-reducing shock, whose outcome would be a radically deintensified economy. That may happen, and Lean Logic thinks about the kind of political economy that could be built to last after such a shock. But recognising the possibility of that shock—and preparing for it—is not the same thing as advocating it, nor assuming it. What it is realistic to advocate is the case for understanding deintensification, and making some progress towards it, whatever the probability of the shock and its timing. A significant degree of localisation is not inconsistent with the market economy, but it has to be intentional, and it goes against the grain of the competitive market which, as a default position—barely even consciously—will centralise and delocalise.

So, that’s the agenda of structural change:

• intentional localisation, starting while the market economy is still capable of supporting an ambitious programme of reform . . .

• using the principle of iterative progress applied both to energy conservation and to structural change itself, and then . . .

• continuing with persistence down an Energy Descent Action Plan towards a deep reduction in energy-dependency.

It does not come from any particular breakthrough or technology; it comes from that iterative advance, a step-by-step opening up of possibilities made available by the interactions both within and between conservation and structural change. It could be by real-life experiment, or on paper, or in conversation, or in the virtual reality of a computer programme. And if policy-makers can be recruited then a supportive national framework like TEQs could be a key catalyst to the necessary local innovation.


3. Energy sources

Once energy conservation and structural change, in their iterative, step-by-step way, have established the frame of reference, it then becomes possible to develop a sensible strategy for the sources of energy on which the community of the future will depend.

Once those first two steps have been developed to the point of reducing energy demand by (say) tenfold or more, down to a realistic and manageable scale, the possibility opens up that solar power, wind power, water power, and the other renewable sources could supply that energy. Renewable energy systems designed to supply all the energy needs of a small-scale local system are quite different from those that are intended simply as a useful contribution to a large system, and the task required of them now begins to become clear—where the energy is needed, how much is needed, for what purposes, when (time of day, time of year), and in what form it should be delivered. The modern grids are based on these calculations anyway, but in the case of lean energy, they will be more detailed, more local. And local systems of all kinds will not be designed on the assumption of abundant energy, but with intense focus on their actual purposes, with energy-flows into the system being factored in only as a last resort, when all other possible solutions have been explored and exhausted. Lean energy solutions are not about energy solutions; they are about solutions.

On the small scale, there is a specificness. People don’t need energy. They don’t need energy services. They don’t need the things that the energy services do for them. They need the final outcomes: health, stimulus, friendship, security, time in a natural environment. There are ways of enabling these outcomes other than through the supply of energy; energy will be part of it, but when the nature, the volume and the timing of energy supply is closely matched to specific intentions, the system begins to get close to sustainable elegance—a defining property of a complex system with a future.

As with energy conservation, there are synergies here. A modest level of energy demand makes it possible to use small-scale installations; transport distances for the energy itself are short; and there is a reduced need for (easily) portable energy—that is, liquid fuels such as petrol, which are hard to get in the absence of oil, gas or coal to start the process. Much less capital is needed; the installation is local, accessible and owned by its users: this is a system that can be fine-tuned.

And low energy demand also has the crucial advantage of reduced reliance on the backup of a national grid. It is not known whether there will be a functioning grid to which local lean economies can link their networks. The presumption in Lean Logic is that there will not. The grid requires a complete industrial and financial infrastructure, whose prospects of long-term survival are poor. There is little to lose—and there is assurance to be gained—by assuming the absence of a reliable grid. A large-scale grid is an undoubted advantage because it evens up the supply, which is especially useful when a substantial proportion of the supply comes from renewables—notably wind. But it may not be available.

Certainly, the grid is no guarantee of a continuous flow. Indeed, should it fail for any reason—such as an outage in the gas-generated electricity which it is designed to carry—it will not be able to accept the flow of energy coming from the renewable energy sources attached to it: it will cut out just at the moment when their contribution is most needed, with the failure of the main system rippling through to a failure of the backup. We might think of an analogy here: a luxury cruise liner equipped with state-of-the-art lifeboats, each equipped with hot cocoa machines and fleece sleeping bags. The only snag being that they are welded to the ship.

In a lean energy system, the production and distribution of energy is decentralised. It is not a top-down structure with energy being produced by large-scale generators and distributed down the wire; instead, all the participants, including households, are active in the grid in several ways. Households generate electricity as well as using it. The local network, or “minigrid”, carries the electrical current in both directions, probably using the efficiency savings of direct current (DC). If the technology is available, a smart grid and smart meters, applying well-established principles and circuitry, will keep demand and supply in balance, smoothing out the peaks and reducing the maximum capacity for which the grid and its energy sources has to be designed. Energy of all kinds will be included in the local network.L76

For all these reasons, a generalised installation of renewables before the design of the local systems which they will be supplying is unfocused, and likely to be an impressive solution to the wrong problem. And that takes us to the intensely-difficult question that opens up with the consideration of local solutions: what is “local”?


What is “local”?

When we think of local renewable sources of energy, it is natural to think of things like: photovoltaic cells in the form of solar panels attached to roofs and walls or film attached to windows; solar thermal systems using solar heat concentrated and tracked with mirrors, wind turbines, local hydropower, run-of-the-river turbines, tidal power, wave power and ground-source heat pumps. And we should think, too, of the gadgets attached to them, such as light bulbs, electric motors and equipment, refrigeration, information processors and the internet.

These are sophisticated machines, and they are provided by the industrial establishment, organised on a global scale. If any part of that network becomes unavailable, its capability is likely to be reduced drastically.

Now, it is not known to what extent that global industrial establishment will survive the climacteric. Nor is it known how far deconcentration into self-reliant local economies will extend—and, in any case, it is likely to vary over time and by location. So we have to approach the matter from the other direction—to be prepared, if only as a thought-experiment, to question the assumption that today’s advanced energy technologies will be available. In fact, there are four characters in the story—four variables . . .

1. The technology available locally.

2. Local technical knowledge and skills.

3. Local natural resources (including energy sources).

4. The extent and reliability of connections with trading partners providing access to resources and equipment which localities cannot provide for themselves.

. . . and they are mutually dependent. If one of them were significantly impaired, the consequences would be substantial. Would a local community then have access to solar panels? wind turbines? diesel- or bio-fuelled generators? electricity from any source? light bulbs?

These are unknowns, of course. We must hope, intensely, for local lite—where (as variable 4 suggests) the locality has access to the small-scale, hyperefficient technologies that enable the potential of small-scale production to be fulfilled. But that, of course, raises a question. If communities can get hold of all the equipment they need to be locally self-reliant in energy, that sounds like a well-ordered society and market: so, whatever happened to the climacteric? Was it cancelled? And if they can get hold of all that equipment, perhaps they can also simply buy the energy itself? In fact, why bother to deconcentrate in the first place? Why not just carry on with the status quo of large-scale capture and concentration? Perhaps we are looking at a golden age of energy-efficiency, with solar energy cabled all over Europe from Desertec installations in the Sahara Desert? Or from wind arrays in the North Sea and extending far out into the North Atlantic? Even if so, that may do little to mitigate any of the other shocks—climate, water, food—that are in prospect; on the contrary, easily-available energy could have the effect of allowing the other shocks to worsen at their leisure.L77

And any shock which disrupts economic life in the mainstream political economy sufficiently to prompt the development of local self-reliance would also be likely to disrupt connections between self-reliant communities. There may be a period during which self-reliance is developed in anticipation of problems to come, but when scarcities bite, local communities seeking increased self-reliance can be expected to find themselves forced into deep self-reliance. In this situation, communities will be able to obtain little from outside providers, and have little access even to tools, or to materials such as copper, other than what they inherit from previous inhabitants and their central heating systems.

The good news here is that there is one asset which could be reasonably resilient to the shock. If the climacteric were to take us back to local self-reliance on the scale of (say) medieval Europe, there would actually be a substantial difference—it could be medieval-plus. Though short of technical equipment, we would at least have technical knowledge. We could make better glass. We would have an understanding of infections and the need for sterile conditions for open wounds and surgery. There would probably be knowledge of how to use local plant species as a source of anaesthetics and maybe even antibiotics. We would not need to invent wood-burning stoves and wheeled luggage. Our standards of organic agriculture would be high. We would not drink out of lead cups. We would have cavity-wall insulation and maybe double-glazing, methane and other biofuels, and the plant-based resins and plastics described in Lean Materials.

And if the equipment and materials for the requisite level of metalworking are available, the possibility opens up of using forms of mechanical power as recommended by the charity Practical Action for communities which do not have the resources to buy, install and maintain an electricity grid. With mechanical power driven by wind, water, animals or humans in place, pumps, mills, threshing, pressing (for vegetable oil), carpentry tools and ropeways for local transport can remain in life-saving working order, providing a resilience to shocks whose first sign of arrival is that the lights go out.L78


In its essentials, then, lean energy is simple. It is about developing conservation and structural changes as far as they will go, and then working out how to supply the energy needed for the relatively modest level of demand that remains. But the way in which that works out is not at all simple. Electricity needs more than the occasional inefficient generator. It almost certainly needs a trading network—for the generation, transmission, and equipment. And it needs a grid. If the maintenance of a national grid is not possible, then that implies conditions which could well place a local grid, too, beyond the competence of local economies. A local grid offers some security from trouble affecting the national grid, so it is worth providing that local resilience if at all possible, but events which would knock out the national grid while leaving the local grid intact and fully maintained cover a relatively narrow range of probability.

Amid all this uncertainty, there are two principles that we can rely on. The first is that the sequence ‘energy conservation → structural change → energy sources’ remains intact, however the story of energy supply develops. Acknowledging uncertainty does not diminish the probability of deep energy scarcities, and the nucleus of any response must be to reduce energy-dependence deeply and urgently. The second principle is that, whatever the circumstances, the flexible, rapid response that will be needed plays to the strengths of lean thinking—this is exactly what it is for. In our present, pre-shock era, reasonable competence can usually get us through: we can refer to established systems and methods. Lean energy needs more than that. The local Lean Economy will need to be brilliant.


Related entries:

Energy Prospects, Energy Descent Action Plan, TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas).

David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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