Positive Energy

By Jim McVeagh 12/01/2010

It was interesting to see two articles on alternative energy sources today, outside of a “series” on such things. One on the approval of the new tidal power generators at Kaipara Harbour and one, a bit more “blue sky” on the realistic possibility of the first practicable fusion generators. Both of these may be realised within a decade, which is good news. Even the most pessimistic “peak oil” proponent thinks the black gold should last twice that long, giving us a reasonable amount of time to roll out those new technologies. As an added bonus, the technologies are both carbon friendly, though I’m not convinced we will be too concerned with that in a decade.

The identifying feature of most “crises” that have been proposed over the past 50 years (and probably longer) is the propensity for linear thinking. Basically the line (literally) goes “the trend goes like this and if we continue it to herewe’re all gonna die“. But given the sheer pace of technological change, it seems strange that we continue to insist that trend lines play out inexorably.

I am aware that this sounds a bit like I am proposing that we ignore those dangerous-looking trends, in the hope that some sort of deus ex machina will pop out of the box and save us. But this is not the case. What I am saying is that we all need a little more long-term perspective on our so-called crises. Instead of running around stirring panic and proposing draconian solutions that threaten to cause more problems than they will solve, we should be prepared to step back and look at the range of technological solutions available to us. All too often in the past, the so-called crises have either not materialised or been overcome by technological advance. There are plenty of potential game-changing technologies like the two at the start of this post, yet the funding for research such as this is a tiny fraction of the sort of money we tend to spend on our very linear solutions to our linear trend problems.

What we probably need is not merely more lateral thinking, but more lateral funding.


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0 Responses to “Positive Energy”

  • Jim, a few quibbles if I may:
    – The most pessimistic peak oilers don’t generally make comment on how long “the black gold” will last for (a long time), but when the peak in production flow will occur. This is a key difference. Some of the pessimists believe we’re there now, and we’re seeing some of the impacts of that economically.
    – The linear narrative you describe is indeed a problem – but from my perspective it’s mainly the other way around. Y’know, “oil production has been increasing linearly owing to growing demand, and demand will only grow, so production will too”. You are right that many important things in the affairs of humankind are neither linear nor easily predictable, though. (Wasn’t it Dr Bartlett who said the greatest failure of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function? There’s a good video lecture of his here: http://www.globalpublicmedia.com/dr_albert_bartlett_arithmetic_population_and_energy).

    I’ll reserve my optimism regarding fusion at this stage, but the tidal is certainly good news. And I can’t fault your ultimate conclusion – taking this seriously and providing serious funding would indeed be a good idea. I’d love to hear how you think a government could do so, though, or why private enterprise would be incented to have a good look at the underlying issues. In my experience, the former won’t scare the horses, and the latter just go “la, la, la, can’t hear you”.

  • rainman:
    Linear, short-term thinking is common to most of mankind and certainly common to all politicians. This is why blue sky research is so poorly funded – much to our loss.
    It is true that “peak oil” is a prediction of the place where production starts to exceed demand, pushing up the price. It is also notoriously difficult to pick because so many variables determine both the production and the price of oil. But my point is that even if we are at peak oil right now, there is still a couple of decades of increasingly difficult to obtain oil to go.

    If more funding is steered towards blue sky research in the area of power and chemical production processes – especially plastics (the two places where oil is currently supreme), we will eventually see a good return in some of the research – at least enough to mitigate the problems, if not solve them. Governments merely have to allocate a significant amount of money towards research in fairly specific problems. Companies dealing the those areas are usually only too keen to have their R&D partially or wholly funded by the taxpayer.

    A specific example. Alternative power. Rather than get tied up creating too many power generators too reliant on the weather and the environment (Wind, Tide, Solar, even Hydro) – Why not research into cheaper forms of Geothermal, safer forms of fission or commercial forms of fusion? Instead of tidal generators, how about deep sea current generators. How about deep sea geothermal or geothermal dielectric generation? All of that is theoretically possible. Just takes money (to be precise, money carefully aimed at brains!)

  • Jim,

    I saw that fusion story yesterday, and pondered posting on it, but a quick Google showed me that the least time this boron fusion idea got any traction was about 10 years ago. Whether the Independent journalist/freelancer (the Herald story was a reprint) was covering anything really new remains to be seen…

    But the tidal stuff is interesting.

    And I wouldn’t rule out solar PV, because China’s into production in a big way and cost per kW is falling rapidly.


  • Re oil: sure, and there are still credible prospects of some countries increasing production to an extent, meaning we’ll probably have a bumpy plateau of resource supply, and consequently variable economic fortune, for the next decade or so. Some debate about Iraq at present, for instance.

    Re R&D funding: absolutely, there is the prospect of good return on some of the research, and indeed this is the only place where a technofix will come from – smart people turning their minds to difficult problems can make a huge difference.

    My question still remains though: I don’t see either government or business getting into this in a meaningful way just yet. (One could argue that Fast Forward or whatever it was called was a good move, albeit agri-focussed, but that’s been scrapped by the current lot, I understand). It’s unclear to me that there is a good business case for risky research into alt energy at this stage – the oil price is still too volatile, and is likely to go down again either from demand destruction or good production news. I think we’re also still in the “animal spirits” phase of market sentiment, and if oil does rally significantly it’s likely there’s be a bunch of cowboys who heap cash in behind it to fuel the rally all the way back to a crash. Not conducive to long term money-spending on kooky energy projects, either way.

    What I think this means is that we won’t fund the required research until the problem becomes more bleedin’ obvious. Unfortunately that’ll also possibly be too late, as I see the economic effects of a definite peak as being fairly tough. (One could argue as James Hamilton does that this recession is oil-price triggered – and ramp the effects up when it isn’t a dress-rehearsal). This is essentially the conclusion reached by the Hirsch report a few years ago – if we start in time and pull out all the stops, we can probably fix this. If we leave it too late, there will be some discontinuity in our prosperity. The later, the worser, so to speak.

    One good option would be a petrol tax, to make the problem more obvious and tickle the creativity required to kick-start the innovation we need. Could be pitched as a climate change initiative, to avoid scaring the horses re oil depletion. But that’s political suicide, and would need to be done in more than just little ole NZ, anyway. (Do we even have any engineers left, or are they all driving taxis?)

    In short, I wish you were right. But with the muppets we have in Wellington, and the sentiment of the nation at the moment, I fear we’ll leave this up to someone else to solve for us, then have to take the solution on their terms. If we’re lucky.