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Energy the nexus of everything: May 2010 Archives

In the continuing saga of the oil leak after the April 20 explosion and subsequent sinking of the Transocean's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, operated by BP, there has been no shortage of people quoted in the news media wondering why we can't just throw money at the problem and have the well plugged. We've heard "Why aren't BP and the government responding?" over and over. But they have been responding, only ineffectively until BP's "top kill" procedure that seems to be having success (as of this writing), but is not yet completed through the process of cementing the well. This thinking that we should easily be able to stop this leak stems from the fact that many people are uneducated about the principles of science and that all things new are viewed as equally innovative. If this fallacy persists it will undermine research and education in energy.

To give an example, I've heard prominent policy speakers on prominent talk shows say that if we'd simply hire Google employees tackle the problem of plugging the leaking oil well, then it would be completed within days. This mentality assumes that, when it comes to environmental remediation of an oil leak a mile below the sea surface, the people who invented the drilling technology itself are at some level less competent then those that make their revenue from linking advertisements to Web searches. Granted, both Google and BP are generally very good at what they do. But suggesting Google is best qualified to stop an oil leak is akin to suggesting that BP should be in charge of Google's strategy for operating its search engine in China. This suggestion also implies that the past research on energy alternatives has been performed by buffoons.

Just as in the past "The Marine Biologist" episode of the popular 1990s US sitcom Seinfeld, we might as well ask Kramer (the clumsy neighbor) to hit a golf ball into the ocean to plug up the well just as he plugged up a whale's blowhole with his "hole-in-one." Oh wait, I forgot, he actually did plug up the hole. In the case of the whale - not well - unplugging the passageway was needed. The call came out for a marine biologist, a relevant expertise for the task at hand. The fact that George (who often lied of his intellectual capabilities to get ahead) solved the problem because he pretended to be a marine biologist, and did so successfully, is relevant to my point. Society perceives that we don't need a foundation in science and engineering to solve energy problems that involve science and engineering.

We as people are more prone to act in times of crises than when continual change is required. Former President George W. Bush' decision to go to war with Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein was based upon the highly uncertain belief that there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that needed confiscation before he chose to use them. As we all know today, there were no WMD in Iraq, but within a few years we at least knew the answer to the question.

We wait until financial crises occur such that we have to take drastic measures to bail out banks so that we can justify actions by saying we didn't have time to pursue other solutions. These justifications exist even though looking at the past data shows that total debt in the US, public and private, has been continuously increasing for all practical history, and is at near 350% of GDP. And now the US public debt is at 90% of GDP. With these trends, why do we need a crisis to act? In group planning exercises, simulated crises are often created to force people to make concrete decisions to explore the effectiveness of the decisions. For example, say that your region is experiencing drought, and the demand for water is 10% higher than the supply - for whom and how much to you reduce water access to meet the supply?

In the research community we should do a much better job at explaining the differences in making decisions under uncertainty. There are measureable decisions that produce short term feedback regarding effectiveness (e.g. acts of war, plugging an oil leak) that have highly uncertain outcomes, but that history has shown people pursuing out of choice or necessity. There are also decisions where the feedbacks occur over long times and succeed due to multiple coordinated actors due to their disperse nature (e.g. climate change mitigation, energy investments, land use management to preserve aquatic environments such as prevention of hypoxic zones). We're good at the former and bad at the latter. Because these latter decisions for environmental management require group coordination, regulation and government involvement is usually used, and those that are affected and unaware question the motives to the point of noncompliance. Only after convincing them that their personal actions make a difference as part of a coordinated effort do they believe they should change their actions.

With regard to energy investments, given the existing measures for economic growth that discount the future and keep environmental impacts external from the growth equation, oil still makes sense. As long as value is measured by the flow of goods instead of the stock goods, we will favor energy and fuel-consuming items and systems. The "innovative" energy efficient investments in web servers that lower the energy per bit have simply followed Jevons' paradox as we now process even more bits than were saved. We stream movies on YouTube and constantly check the web on our mobile phones.

We assume that solar electric generating technologies will someday be cheaper than coal, and we assume that putting a sufficient price on greenhouse gas emissions will drive innovation in energy systems that enable continuous living at high standards in the developed world while bringing the developing world up to par. Most of these assumptions of innovation of new technologies are based upon the study of gadgets that consume, rather than produce energy. There is a reason why solar power is not cheaper than coal power - it is hard to take a diffuse energy resource such as sunlight and make it as productive as energy dense resources like fossil fuels. There are real physical constraints that limit the power that can be produced. These physical constraints can't be removed by programming a search engine (Google) or a mimicking a sitcom (Seinfeld), or simply believing they will work.

We need to understand how well renewable energy systems can replace fossil fuels. This is not because the fossil fuel industry is necessarily evil, but because fossil resources will inevitably become uneconomical, no matter how we quantify that. And because today renewable energy technologies are manufactured by burning fossil fuels, they will also not be economical in the long run unless they are made with their own energy as an input.