Lean Energy Philosophy For Nepal

Lean Energy Philosophy for Nepal In 1976, Amory B. Lovins, the founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, introduced the concept of Soft Energy Path and Hard Energy Path in his paper titled: Energy Strategy – The Road Not Taken. And he actually started the paper with lines from Robert Frost’s poem titled The Road Not Taken. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by And that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

This article is intended to introduce readers to the concepts of hard and soft energy paths and lean manufacturing principles; and propose an apt philosophy to be understood and practiced in Nepal for an energy secured future, based on the characteristics of these paths and principles. What do soft and hard energy paths mean? Hard energy path, roughly, is the conventional path followed in most parts of the world. It is the path that our disregard for consequences in farther future has led us to. Common symptoms include overreliance on nonrenewable resources, excessive capital and infrastructure investment, energy inefficiency, and redundancies in energy conversion processes. Soft energy path, according to Lovins, is the counterintuitive path to sustainability that focuses on energy efficiency, renewable energy matched in scale and quality to end use needs, and special transitional fossil fuel technologies. In the late 1940s, Toyota Production System was developed and it popularized the idea of Lean Manufacturing Principles. Lean Manufacturing is what enabled Toyota to produce more cars more efficiently than the inventors of assembly line technology – Ford Motors themselves, when they had better resources than Toyota Motors. The skeleton of lean manufacturing principles is made of: decreasing waste, increasing value to the customer, and a series of continuous improvements. Lean principles share some features already with the soft energy path. Soft energy path focuses in eliminating redundancies in energy conversion and lean manufacturing focuses on decreasing waste. Lean manufacturing focuses on increasing value to the customer and soft energy path focuses on marching scale and quality of renewable energy to end use needs. The third important point of lean manufacturing – continuous improvement is missed by the soft energy path. Continuous improvement is vital for modern energy systems as they need to be resilient. Energy security depends on political, economic, and technological factors among many others. Dynamics of these factors keep changing with time. Continuous analysis of changes and appropriate response (robustness) is more than desirable – it is necessary.
Discovering fire ages ago was one of our great landmarks in the history of our evolution. Invention of steam engine was another. Steam engines powered ships and trains, and enabled quick movements between distant places previously deemed impossible. This spurred trade across boundaries, and the whole planet, as an economy, grew exponentially. Then somebody invented the Internal Combustion Engine – the kind that your vehicle and generator uses. Then there was nuclear power. Then there were large dams that generated power from water. We also generated electricity from wind using large turbines. Now we can harness energy, mainly as electricity, from virtually any other form of energy.
Coal extracted from mines, and fossil fuels from oil fields powered the world economy. These energy resources were easy to mine and useful for many things. And abundant. Or so we thought. Several undesired ramifications of coals and fossil fuels began to show. Come now, we are making a transition to renewable energy with all the speed we can muster. So, what changed? Realizing that we were jeopardizing our own survival on earth did. To put this in perspective, dinosaurs survived for 165 million years. Modern human species are only 200,000 years young. Carbon emissions are significantly massive and global warming is becoming, for the lack of a better word, too hot to handle. If we are striking an axe on our foot ourselves, we are not that smart as species, are we? Hard energy path is not only about non-renewable and emissions. It is also in the way the energy reaches to the end users – us. Hard energy path can be characterized by the likes of overreliance on nonrenewable energy resources, centrally distributed transmission system, and redundant energy conversion. Let’s compare between cooking food by using electric heaters and cooking food with energy efficient cook stoves. Starting with using electric heaters, we have to consider energy conversions in total supply chain that goes from generation to transmission to distribution to end use. Generation efficiency of hydropower is 90%, efficiency of transmission and generation of Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) is 70%, and efficiency of common electric heaters (the red clay types with coil on top) is 40% (yes, induction cookers are more efficient but our electricity distribution system is not designed to handle inductive loads in large quantities). The total efficiency of this chain is thus 25%. Common improved cooking stoves are 25 – 35 % efficient. Gasification based cooking stoves are more than 30 % efficient. Hence, it makes more sense to replace existing traditional cooking stoves with gasification based cooking stoves, and not electric cooking stoves. Lean Energy Philosophy draws idea from soft energy path in matching renewable energy in quality and scale to end use needs, as we have matched cooking with the most efficient energy technology here. So, centralized electricity based power systems are convenient for use in almost all purposes, but there are limitations and redundancies. Yes, a large amount of power transmission still has to happen through centralized electrical power systems. This doesn’t mean we have to go all in. But we have hydropower in Nepal, don’t we? And it is renewable, isn’t it? Yes, we have hydropower potential that is more than enough to fulfill all of our energy needs if properly harnessed. We cannot, however, neglect the vulnerabilities of hydropower in Nepal that can have deleterious consequences. Climate change is adding to unpredictability of our hydropower generation potential. We have seen the extent of nature’s wrath in the earthquake last year that along with the lives of our brethren, claimed many infrastructure projects inflicting severe damages to some hydropower projects. We can never rely on one energy resource, however abundant that may be. Even the Arabs are investing huge capital in solar energy nowadays. Our country is blessed with energy resources. We also have good potential for wind energy (about 3000 MW), solar energy, and biomass energy. Utilizing the potential and diversifying energy generation mix will help in reduce the need to invest in energy infrastructure, as energy produced from these resources can be used near generation site, unlike hydropower where most of the demand resides away from site of generation. A new philosophy of energy planning is theorized by borrowing ideas from soft energy path, lean manufacturing principles, and energy resources and demand in Nepal. The way forward is matching variety of renewable energy resources in quality and scale with energy use supported by energy efficiency and eliminating redundancies in energy conversion.

Written on October 22, 2018