On a recent trip to Germany to study the country’s energy policy, the phrase “energy transition,” or “energiewende” as the Germans say, was on everyone’s mind.
Utilities can transform the world’s energy economy.
In the earliest written legends of King Arthur and Camelot, Perceval was a knight of the round table. He was one of the grail knights, who quested for the mystical Holy Grail in hopes of returning Britain to a state of grace and prosperity. Perceval’s sagas are largely forgotten today, but at least one of them serves as a useful metaphor for an industry seeking the proverbial Holy Grail of clean-energy technology—specifically, the tale of Perceval and the Fisher King.
While on his quest, in the midst of a barren wasteland, Perceval meets a nobleman called the Fisher King. The king is wounded—just like his domain—yet he invites Perceval to supper at his castle. During the feast, the Fisher King presents Perceval with an engraved sword. Then Perceval witnesses a parade of young people bearing strange relics—including a lance that oozes blood, a candelabrum and a jeweled cup.
Perceval says nothing, because he finds this procession bewildering, and fears to seem discourteous to his host. But after he leaves the castle, Perceval learns the cup was indeed the Holy Grail. If only he had asked a question about it, the grail would have healed the wounded king and restored vitality to the land.
The Fisher King legend is one of many mythic stories in which a hero faces some kind of test, whose outcome determines the fate of a suffering kingdom. But what differentiates Perceval’s tale—and makes it pertinent for the utility industry today—is the nature of the challenge, and the manner of the hero’s failure. For want of a single question, Perceval missed his opportunity to secure the Holy Grail, and heal an ailing world.
The importance of transforming the global energy economy can hardly be overstated. In a very real sense, the fate of the world might depend on the outcome of the challenge facing the world’s energy industries. As if the Iraq war and melting polar ice weren’t sufficient warning signs, we now see a third harbinger of what’s to come: hunger.
The United Nations released a report in April detailing the dire state of the world’s food supply (Synthesis Report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) . At the same time, rising food prices in Haiti sparked rioting in the streets, and Egypt’s government deployed troops and police to quash protests over skyrocketing bread prices.
Hunger and unrest likely will spread as the world’s human population expands—and as energy resources become increasingly scarce and expensive. A food crisis is really an energy crisis in disguise, because a huge share of our energy output is dedicated to producing food.
As Richard Manning pointed out in, “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq,” (Harper’s, February 2004) , “All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.” And as the U.N.