Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 2017  

Posted by Big Gav in

I'm not a huge fan of the Maritime Museum as a venue for this exhibition, but I still make my annual pilgrimage to it. Some interesting images still make it through - WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR.

This year wasn't without controversy, with one winner being disqualified after it turned out that he had used a taxidermist's product in his image - Wildlife photographer of the year entry winner disqualified after judges realise it was of a stuffed anteater.

China’s coal consumption has peaked  

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Brookings has a report from the China Daily prophesising that Chinese coal use has peaked - China’s coal consumption has peaked.

Looking ahead, we do not anticipate significant new growth of coal consumption this year or in the next few years. First of all, the Chinese government is not setting a higher target of growth for 2018. The traditional drivers of coal growth – construction and manufacturing – will continue to give way to the service sector in economic growth. Real estate development is experiencing the coldest winter ever due to restrictive regulations by the central and local governments. Anticipation of a property tax would make speculators switch from “buy” to “sell” mode.

We stick to our conclusion made in 2016: Coal-fired growth is over, despite the fact that coal remains the primary fuel for the Chinese economy.

Additionally, investment in infrastructure construction by local governments is now haunted by the local debts and is unlikely to grow quickly. In fact, some provincial governments have gone public to acknowledge and correct their overestimations of GDP and revenue. We stick to our conclusion made in 2016: Coal-fired growth is over, despite the fact that coal remains the primary fuel for the Chinese economy.

In addition, the regional coal-cap policy will continue to squeeze coal out of the energy mix, especially in the haze-intensive regions in the north. It is expected that even less coal will be used next winter, when more gas pipes are in place for heating.

The real game changer is clean energy. The price of solar photovoltaic is at an all-time low, enough to compete against coal for power generation. Additionally, wind power is well positioned to play an even bigger role.

Nevertheless, China is still the single largest coal user in the world, and coal represents more than 60 percent of its energy mix. But in the long run, coal consumption will continue declining – with current policies and the structural transformation of the economy from being a heavy industry-led, export-driven model to one sustained by services and domestic consumption – despite the annual and seasonal fluctuations.

We have no doubt that China’s coal consumption has peaked and coal-fired economic growth has come to an end.

Electric Buses Are Hurting the Oil Industry  

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Bloomberg has a report on the rapidly growing electric bus industry, with China leading the way (adding a London-sized electric bus fleet every five weeks) - Electric Buses Are Hurting the Oil Industry.

Electric buses were seen as a joke at an industry conference in Belgium seven years ago when the Chinese manufacturer BYD Co. showed an early model. “Everyone was laughing at BYD for making a toy,” recalled Isbrand Ho, the Shenzhen-based company’s managing director in Europe. “And look now. Everyone has one.”

Suddenly, buses with battery-powered motors are a serious matter with the potential to revolutionize city transport—and add to the forces reshaping the energy industry. With China leading the way, making the traditional smog-belching diesel behemoth run on electricity is starting to eat away at fossil fuel demand.

The numbers are staggering. China had about 99 percent of the 385,000 electric buses on the roads worldwide in 2017, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s entire fleet. Every five weeks, Chinese cities add 9,500 of the zero-emissions transporters—the equivalent of London’s entire working fleet, according Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

All this is starting to make an observable reduction in fuel demand. And because they consume 30 times more fuel than average sized cars, their impact on energy use so far has become much greater than the passenger sedans produced by companies from Tesla Inc. to Toyota Motor Corp.

Roger Waters: Wake up and smell the roses  

Posted by Big Gav in

The propaganda war against Syria has been every bit as bad as the endless stream of lies we were fed about Iraq 15 years ago.

Every time I see another made up story about "chemical weapons" being used by the Syrians (or by the Russians on some random dude they'd long ago allowed to emigrate to Britain) I wonder who believes this nonsense. Judging by the comments section at the SMH and on Twitter there are a lot of skeptics about, even if the mainstream media refuses to air any dissenting opinions at all.

In the Iraq case the propaganda war seemed primarily designed to ensure control of the oil (with military industrial complex profits and the desire of the Israel lobby to destroy all other middle eastern states being the most important secondary factors). In this new war that is being pushed for the latter two factors far outweigh any energy related concerns.

I enjoyed watching Pink Floyd's Roger Waters courteously dismissing those who fall for the party line at a recent concert.

SolarReserve to build 150MW solar thermal project in South Australia  

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The SMH reports that SolarReserve will be building a 150MW solar thermal power plant in South Australia, following on the commissioning of the world's largest battery storage facility by Tesla in the state and in parallel with Zen Energy’s 1GW solar / storage project - South Australia planning to build the world’s largest thermal solar plant.

Following the success of the world’s largest battery, South Australia is aiming to build the world’s largest thermal solar plant. SolarReserve’s $650 million, 150 megawatt Aurora solar thermal plant has received state development approval. Construction of the facility will begin this year.
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Hinkley Point: the ‘dreadful deal’ behind the world’s most expensive power plant  

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The Guardian has a look at the UK's disastrous Hinkley Point nuclear power project - Hinkley Point: the ‘dreadful deal’ behind the world’s most expensive power plant.

Hinkley Point, on the Somerset coast, is the biggest building site in Europe. Here, on 430 acres of muddy fields scattered with towering cranes and bright yellow diggers, the first new nuclear power station in the UK since 1995 is slowly taking shape. When it is finally completed, Hinkley Point C will be the most expensive power station in the world. But to reach that stage, it will need to overcome an extraordinary tangle of financial, political and technical difficulties. The project was first proposed almost four decades ago, and its progress has been glacial, having faced relentless opposition from politicians, academics and economists every step of the way.

Some critics of the project have questioned whether Hinkley Point C’s nuclear reactor will even work. It is a new and controversial design, which has been dogged by construction problems and has yet to start functioning anywhere in the world. Some experts believe it could actually prove impossible to build. “It’s three times over cost and three times over time where it’s been built in Finland and France,” says Paul Dorfman, from the UCL Energy Institute. “This is a failed and failing reactor.”

Venezuela to issue $5.9 billion in oil-backed cryptocurrency  

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Reuters has a report on Venezuela's plans to issue an oil backed alternative currency, apparently trying to leverage the crypto-currency boom to circumvent US sanctions. Using a fossil fuel to back the currency is bad but no worse than the massive waste of energy Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies represent - Maduro says Venezuela will issue $5.9 billion in oil-backed cryptocurrency.

President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday that Venezuela would issue 100 million units of its new oil-backed cryptocurrency in coming days ... Socialist Maduro surprised many last month when he announced the launch of the cryptocurrency, to be backed by Venezuela’s oil, gas, gold and diamond reserves, as a way to circumvent U.S. sanctions that have hurt Venezuela’s access to international banks.

I am Eric Trump !  

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McSweeney's has a weird and possibly satirical article explaining Eric Trump's public silence - I AM ERIC TRUMP. MY FAMILY WON’T LET ME TALK BECAUSE I AM AN ANARCHO-FEMINIST COMMITTED TO KURDISH LIBERATION.

Over the past few years, I have been mocked on late-night comedy programs as a silent dolt. It makes sense for Western liberals to mock what they don’t understand, but what they think is silence due to a childish stupidity is actually a decades-long censorship campaign of my political beliefs. My family won’t let me talk because I am an anarcho-feminist committed to Kurdish liberation.

When I was a young boy, I lived with my grandparents in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. One day, when my grandmother was subjugated to patriarchal wage slavery at a shoe factory, and my brother Don was out shooting endangered deer with Kalashnikovs, I found a strange book on her shelf titled, The National Road To Kurdish Revolution by Abdullah Öcalan. I didn’t realize it then, but this author, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), would become the most important person in the world to me, a man that I would soon call Apo, or father.

On its 100th birthday in 1959, Edward Teller warned the oil industry about global warming  

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The Guardian has a look back at a long ago warning about global warming to the oil industry - On its 100th birthday in 1959, Edward Teller warned the oil industry about global warming.

Over 300 government officials, economists, historians, scientists, and industry executives were present for the Energy and Man symposium – organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business – and Dunlop was to address the entire congregation on the “prime mover” of the last century – energy – and its major source: oil. As President of the Sun Oil Company, he knew the business well, and as a director of the American Petroleum Institute – the industry’s largest and oldest trade association in the land of Uncle Sam – he was responsible for representing the interests of all those many oilmen gathered around him.

Four others joined Dunlop at the podium that day, one of whom had made the journey from California – and Hungary before that. The nuclear weapons physicist Edward Teller had, by 1959, become ostracized by the scientific community for betraying his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer, but he retained the embrace of industry and government. Teller’s task that November fourth was to address the crowd on “energy patterns of the future,” and his words carried an unexpected warning:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am to talk to you about energy in the future. I will start by telling you why I believe that the energy resources of the past must be supplemented. First of all, these energy resources will run short as we use more and more of the fossil fuels. But I would [...] like to mention another reason why we probably have to look for additional fuel supplies. And this, strangely, is the question of contaminating the atmosphere. [....] Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. [....] The carbon dioxide is invisible, it is transparent, you can’t smell it, it is not dangerous to health, so why should one worry about it?

Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect [....] It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.

Charlie Stross on slow AIs  

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Charlie Stross did an interesting talk to the Chaos Computer Club about the first generation of AIs that is wrecking the plane - Dude, you broke the future!.

History gives us the perspective to see what went wrong in the past, and to look for patterns, and check whether those patterns apply to the present and near future. And looking in particular at the history of the past 200-400 years—the age of increasingly rapid change—one glaringly obvious deviation from the norm of the preceding three thousand centuries—is the development of Artificial Intelligence, which happened no earlier than 1553 and no later than 1844. I'm talking about the very old, very slow AIs we call corporations, of course. What lessons from the history of the company can we draw that tell us about the likely behaviour of the type of artificial intelligence we are all interested in today? ...

What do our current, actually-existing AI overlords want?

Elon Musk—who I believe you have all heard of—has an obsessive fear of one particular hazard of artificial intelligence—which he conceives of as being a piece of software that functions like a brain-in-a-box)—namely, the paperclip maximizer. A paperclip maximizer is a term of art for a goal-seeking AI that has a single priority, for example maximizing the number of paperclips in the universe. The paperclip maximizer is able to improve itself in pursuit of that goal but has no ability to vary its goal, so it will ultimately attempt to convert all the metallic elements in the solar system into paperclips, even if this is obviously detrimental to the wellbeing of the humans who designed it.

Unfortunately, Musk isn't paying enough attention. Consider his own companies. Tesla is a battery maximizer—an electric car is a battery with wheels and seats. SpaceX is an orbital payload maximizer, driving down the cost of space launches in order to encourage more sales for the service it provides. Solar City is a photovoltaic panel maximizer. And so on. All three of Musk's very own slow AIs are based on an architecture that is designed to maximize return on shareholder investment, even if by doing so they cook the planet the shareholders have to live on. ...

The problem with corporations is that despite their overt goals—whether they make electric vehicles or beer or sell life insurance policies—they are all subject to instrumental convergence insofar as they all have a common implicit paperclip-maximizer goal: to generate revenue. If they don't make money, they are eaten by a bigger predator or they go bust. Making money is an instrumental goal—it's as vital to them as breathing is for us mammals, and without pursuing it they will fail to achieve their final goal, whatever it may be. Corporations generally pursue their instrumental goals—notably maximizing revenue—as a side-effect of the pursuit of their overt goal. But sometimes they try instead to manipulate the regulatory environment they operate in, to ensure that money flows towards them regardless.

Human tool-making culture has become increasingly complicated over time. New technologies always come with an implicit political agenda that seeks to extend its use, governments react by legislating to control the technologies, and sometimes we end up with industries indulging in legal duels.

For example, consider the automobile. You can't have mass automobile transport without gas stations and fuel distribution pipelines. These in turn require access to whoever owns the land the oil is extracted from—and before you know it, you end up with a permanent occupation force in Iraq and a client dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. Closer to home, automobiles imply jaywalking laws and drink-driving laws. They affect town planning regulations and encourage suburban sprawl, the construction of human infrastructure on the scale required by automobiles, not pedestrians. This in turn is bad for competing transport technologies like buses or trams (which work best in cities with a high population density).

To get these laws in place, providing an environment conducive to doing business, corporations spend money on political lobbyists—and, when they can get away with it, on bribes. Bribery need not be blatant, of course. For example, the reforms of the British railway network in the 1960s dismembered many branch services and coincided with a surge in road building and automobile sales. These reforms were orchestrated by Transport Minister Ernest Marples, who was purely a politician. However, Marples accumulated a considerable personal fortune during this time by owning shares in a motorway construction corporation. (So, no conflict of interest there!)

The automobile industry in isolation isn't a pure paperclip maximizer. But if you look at it in conjunction with the fossil fuel industries, the road-construction industry, the accident insurance industry, and so on, you begin to see the outline of a paperclip maximizing ecosystem that invades far-flung lands and grinds up and kills around one and a quarter million people per year—that's the global death toll from automobile accidents according to the world health organization: it rivals the first world war on an ongoing basis—as side-effects of its drive to sell you a new car.

Ice Apocalypse  

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Eric Holthaus at Grist has a look at Antarctica's melting glaciers - Ice Apocalypse.

In a remote region of Antarctica known as Pine Island Bay, 2,500 miles from the tip of South America, two glaciers hold human civilization hostage.

Stretching across a frozen plain more than 150 miles long, these glaciers, named Pine Island and Thwaites, have marched steadily for millennia toward the Amundsen Sea, part of the vast Southern Ocean. Further inland, the glaciers widen into a two-mile-thick reserve of ice covering an area the size of Texas.

There’s no doubt this ice will melt as the world warms. The vital question is when.

The glaciers of Pine Island Bay are two of the largest and fastest-melting in Antarctica. (A Rolling Stone feature earlier this year dubbed Thwaites “The Doomsday Glacier.”) Together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet. For that reason, finding out how fast these glaciers will collapse is one of the most important scientific questions in the world today.

Radical Reels 2017  

Posted by Big Gav

I saw this year's Radical Reels earlier in the week - the pick of the movies were a French film about skiing ultra-steep alpine mountain faces and some American guys kayaking in Papua New Guinea.

RIP Edward Herman  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has a farewell to "Manufacturing Consent" co-author Edward Herman - RIP Edward Herman, Who Co-Wrote a Book That's Now More Important Than Ever.

Edward Herman, the co-author (with Noam Chomsky) of Manufacturing Consent, has died. He was 92. His work has never been more relevant.

Manufacturing Consent was a kind of bible of media criticism for a generation of dissident thinkers. The book described with great clarity how the system of private commercial media in America cooperates with state power to generate propaganda.

Herman's work was difficult for many to understand because the nature of the American media, then and now, seemed at best to be at an arm's length from, say, the CIA or the State Department. Here is how the book put it:

"It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent."

The basic thesis of Manufacturing Consent was that propaganda in America is generated through a few key idiosyncrasies of our (mostly private) system.

One is that getting the whole population to buy in to a narrative requires the sustained attention of the greater part of the commercial media, for at least a news cycle or two.

We don't censor the truth in America, mostly. What we do instead is ignore it. If a lone reporter wants to keep banging a drum about something taboo, like contracting corruption in the military, or atrocities abroad, he or she will a) tend not advance in the business, and b) not be picked up by other media.

Therefore the only stories that tended to reach mass audiences were ones in which the basic gist was agreed upon by the editors and news directors of all or most of the major media companies.

In virtually all cases this little mini-oligarchy of media overlords kept the news closely in sync with the official pronouncements of the U.S. government.

The appearance of dissent was permitted in op-ed pages, where Democrats and Republicans "debated" things. But what readers encountered in these places was a highly ritualized, artificially narrow form of argument kept strictly within a range of acceptable opinions.

Herman's last article had a look at the long history of "fake news" published by The New York Times - Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies (though they are from from the only ones guilty of this).

It has been amusing to watch the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets express their dismay over the rise and spread of “fake news.” These publications take it as an obvious truth that what they provide is straightforward, unbiased, fact-based reporting. They do offer such news, but they also provide a steady flow of their own varied forms of fake news, often by disseminating false or misleading information supplied to them by the national security state, other branches of government, and sites of corporate power.

An important form of mainstream media fake news is that which is presented while suppressing information that calls the preferred news into question. This was the case with “The Lie That Wasn’t Shot Down,” the title of a January 18, 1988, Times editorial referring to a propaganda claim of five years earlier that the editors had swallowed and never looked into any further. The lie—that the Soviets knew that Korean airliner 007, which they shot down on August 31, 1983, was a civilian plane—was eventually uncovered by congressman Lee Hamilton, not by the Times.

Mainstream media fake news is especially likely where a party line is quickly formed on a topic, with any deviations therefore immediately dismissed as naïve, unpatriotic, or simply wrong. In a dramatic illustration, for a book chapter entitled “Worthy and Unworthy Victims,” Noam Chomsky and I showed that coverage by Time, Newsweek, CBS News, and the New York Times of the 1984 murder of the priest Jerzy Popieluzko in Communist Poland, a dramatic and politically useful event for the politicized Western mainstream media, exceeded all their coverage of the murders of a hundred religious figures killed in Latin America by U.S. client states in the post-Second World War years taken together. It was cheap and safe to focus heavily on the “worthy” victim, whereas looking closely at the deaths of those hundred would have required an expensive and sometimes dangerous research effort that would have upset the State Department. But it was in effect a form of fake news to so selectively devote coverage (and indignation) to a politically useful victim, while ignoring large numbers whose murder the political establishment sought to downplay or completely suppress.

Bitcoin: A Massive Waste Of Energy  

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Digieconomist has a look at the massive waste of energy that Bitcoin mining represents - Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index. Bitcoin is the opposite of an energy backed currency (one of the useful forms of alternative currency proposed in the past).

‘The windscreen phenomenon’ - why your car is no longer covered in dead insects  

Posted by Big Gav

The UK Telegraph has an article on the ongoing decimation of insect populations - ‘The windscreen phenomenon’ - why your car is no longer covered in dead insects.

Wildlife experts have been warning about the alarming decline in insects for decades. But the fall in numbers of bugs in Britain has now reached such a troubling extent that even motorists are noticing that their windscreens are clear of squashed flies, gnats, moths and wasps. Where a trip in high summer would once have necessitated taking a squeegee to the front window, now the glass is largely clear, drivers are reporting.

The most recent RSPB State of Nature report, which brings together findings from 50 organisations, suggests there has been a 59 per cent decline in insects in the UK since 1970.

Fukushima cleanup to cost $72 billion  

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Bloomberg has a report on robots exploring the ruins of the Fukushima reactor complex - Japan Pictures Likely Show Melted Fukushima Fuel for First Time.

Because of the high radioactivity levels inside the reactor, only specially designed robots can probe the unit. And the unprecedented nature of the Fukushima disaster means that Tepco, as the utility is known, is pinning its efforts on technology not yet invented to get the melted fuel out of the reactors.

The company aims to decide on the procedure to remove the melted fuel from each unit as soon as this summer. And it will confirm the procedure for the first reactor during the fiscal year ending March 2019, with fuel removal slated to begin in 2021.

Decommissioning the reactors will cost 8 trillion yen ($72 billion), according to an estimate in December from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Removing the fuel is one of the most important steps in a cleanup that may take as long as 40 years.

Renewable energy becoming so cheap the US will meet Paris commitments  

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Quartz has an article noting that Trump's withdrawal from the Paris agreement is just an act of carbonite theatre - renewable energy is now so cheap the US will meet its target anyway - Renewable energy is becoming so cheap the US will meet Paris commitments even if Trump withdraws.

Research analysts at Morgan Stanley believe that renewable energy like solar and wind power are hurtling towards a level of ubiquity where not even politics can hinder them. Renewable energy is simply becoming the cheapest option, fast. Basic economics, the analysts say, suggest that the US will exceed its commitments in the Paris agreement regardless of whether or not president Donald Trump withdraws, as he’s stated he will.

“We project that by 2020, renewables will be the cheapest form of new-power generation across the globe,” with the exception of a few countries in Southeast Asia, the Morgan Stanley analysts said in a report published Thursday. “By our forecasts, in most cases favorable renewables economics rather than government policy will be the primary driver of changes to utilities’ carbon emissions levels,” they wrote. “For example, notwithstanding president Trump’s stated intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord, we expect the US to exceed the Paris commitment of a 26-28% reduction in its 2005-level carbon emissions by 2020.”

Record half year for rooftop solar in Australia  

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RNE reports that solar PV installations in Australia are now well above their feed-in tariff driven peak of 2013 - Record half year for rooftop solar after another bumper month.

The new statistics, released by industry analyst Sunwiz, follow a new report released last week that showed that the average uptake of rooftop solar in Australia had now reached 25 per cent, and above 31 per cent in Queensland and South Australia. The Sunwiz data shows that Australia now has 5.83GW of rooftop solar installed on 1.71 million homes and businesses. Queensland leads the way with 1.77GW – bigger in capacity than the state’s largest coal fired generator.

Businesses are the biggest mover in the uptake of rooftop solar – possibly because they are being hit with even bigger rises in electricity bills, and accounted for a record 33 per cent of installations in the last month, and more than 40 per cent of installations in states likes South Australia.

Holland’s first Vertical Forest  

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Inhabitat has a look at another example of an urban forest - Holland’s first Vertical Forest to rise with 10,000 air-purifying plants.

Hot on the heels of the world’s first Forest City in China, Stefano Boeri Architetti has announced their winning bid for the first Vertical Forest in the Netherlands. Set to rise in Utrecht, the Hawthorn Tower will, like its Milanese predecessor, be blanketed in greenery and is expected to absorb over 5.4 tons of carbon dioxide. The equivalent of one hectare of woods will be installed on the tower to create a real urban ecosystem with over 30 different vegetal species.

Batteries are going to make rooftop solar invulnerable  

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Dave Roberts at Vox has an interesting look at the problem cheap battery storage is posing for utilities trying to stop the spread of solar power - Utilities fighting against rooftop solar are only hastening their own doom.

As they get cheaper, batteries make sense for more commercial applications. As new markets for storage grow, demand for batteries increases. As demand increases, economies of scale kick in and batteries get cheaper. Rinse, repeat.

The McKinsey analysis shows this dynamic playing out within the power sector, both “behind the meter” (batteries inside a customer’s home or building) and “in front of the meter” (batteries assembled into large-scale storage installations). Batteries are soon going to disrupt power markets at all scales.

The whole analysis is interesting, but I want to focus in on the way batteries will affect rooftop solar. Across the country, intense battles are being waged as utilities push back against the rapid spread of rooftop solar. (See, as the latest example, Nevada.) Batteries, McKinsey reveals, are going to scramble those battles, making them effectively unwinnable for utilities. The existential crisis they hoped to avoid by slowing rooftop solar is going to slam into them twice as hard once batteries enter the picture.

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