Tuesday, October 11, 2011

V515x4 Energy Efficiency & Renewables

The Heart of the Matter

It would be hard to really estimate the total hours I've spent watching video lectures on sustainability concerns, at least a quarter of which revolve around the world's energy problems.  What's more, a large portion of my undergraduate research and conference presentation revolved around the so-called "resource curse," experienced by a number of developing-world mineral economies.  But, I gotta tell you, the variance among the ideas for resolving hydrocarbon problems is mind-boggling.  A great deal of this is probably owed to the fact that the list of problems is long and changes through time - as old problems are resolved by unanticipated developments and similar developments generate new ones.

What I am willing to say about the matter is that it is much more worrisome for fundamental reasons -- complex systems management,  path-dependency, and international political economy -- than for any of the specific problems that people have cataloged.  It's easier to be a critic than an innovator, but I don't mean to project that I grasp something unknown among the brilliant minds being applied to these problems, which I'll just refer to as "the energy problem."  For, indeed, these thought-leaders have proposed elegant solutions to seemingly intractable aspects of the energy problem.

Complexity and Comprehensivity

I'm especially a big fan of Amory Lovins.  This is his 2005 TED talk on the gist of his (co-authored) book Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovations for Profits, Jobs, and Security.  Its a bit lengthy, and a lot has happened since this book and lecture were published -- most notably the financial crisis -- however, the solutions he presents are impressively comprehensive -- everything from the energy markets, to vehicle production, to promoting sustainables, and more.
When discussing renewable energies and vehicle-advancement -- through the integration of cutting-edge materials science -- Lovins quickly passes-over a very critical assumption of his solution: a belief that this idea, these types of solutions, can help "create demand-pull and flip the market."  That raises a pretty sizable red-flag in my mind, as does any plan that relies on some sudden inflection in historically entrenched market and behavioral trends.

This passing comment is not enough to dismantle Lovins' argument, but it speaks to another point about comprehensive, optimistic solutions to durable problems:  the whole reason such solutions are designed to be comprehensive is, as I see it, owed to the fact that they deal with complex systems that are not amenable to predictable change in reaction to single policy instruments or linear plans of attack.  That being said, one of the oddities I find in contemporary sustainability science is an underappreciation of complexity.  Yes, complexity is duly noted in most work and there have been incredible advances in complex systems modelling that have yielded impressively accurate results.  But what worries me is the possibility of letting our analytical guard down, given the superficial assurance granted when new research or implementation ideas simply attempt to account for complexity.  Though this might warrant Captain Planet turning me into a tree, a friend and I have been debating the significance of some NASA data that was recently released, with accompanying analysis in the form of a research paper:


Though I find the authorship to be an absolute farce of respectable, objective journalism, my point in even bringing this up is that even our best models of complex systems -- in this instance, global climatological models -- can be derailed (or rendered in-need of recalibrating) by the revelation of new data or the obviation of previously unknown, critical feedback processes.

Path Dependence: Politics, Risk Aversion, & Tech "Lock-In" 

 Not all of the ingenious proposals for resolving the energy problem are as comprehensive and specific as Lovins', yet they are of comparable value.  Juan Enriquez makes the unique argument that a way to relieve some pressure from the energy problem is to apply to energy harvesting what we have already applied to agricultural harvesting:  citing the Green Revolution, Enriquez suggests that we "apply biological principles to avoid brute force."

Though I appreciate his emphasis on stepwise transition, Enriquez's proposal may be subject to some of the same problems affecting Lovins' argument.  Apart from the complexity critique, I feel like questions of political-economy are consistently ignored.  It is not enough for workable solutions to exist, not enough for them to be well-publicized, and not enough for them to be profitable.  Politics, human psychology, infrastructure, and political economy can have a robust tendency for generating lock-in: (Politics) how are agricultural and energy subsidies to be phased-out without causing deep political turmoil? (Psychology) how are legions of financiers and entrepreneurs to overcome a demonstrated tendency toward risk-aversion? If the status quo -- and the trajectory it projects -- are profitable enough, why take a large risk for somewhat larger returns? (Infrastructure) how do we counterbalance the huge capital investment costs of fixing energy grids? How do we usefully convert a motor-transport infrastructure? (Political economy) How are we to revolutionize production if current, international product cycles keep inefficient processes & products profitable?

Roseland's chapter provides a number of inspiring solutions to some of these problems, but not only do they focus on the infrastructural and the publicization of efficiency-->profit gains, they are, as in other chapters, spread over time and different states, with little study of the best, transferable practices that could be implemented across similar communities.


  1. Ryan, the links you provide and the videos you share, as well as your thoughts and reflections on the various topics, always inspire me. You must spend a lot of time browsing for those resources, but I appreciate the extra effort.

    Moving on to the topic at hand, I have similar doubts regarding the various solutions that have been proposed for some of today’s most-threatening environmental challenges. It has become apparent to me, in highly intellectual terms I might add, that what makes common sense doesn’t make political sense, what makes sense environmentally doesn’t make sense economically, what makes sense logically doesn’t make sense publicly, what makes sense rationally doesn’t make sense psychologically, and what makes sense scientifically doesn’t make sense to enough.

    I have been reading a lot about ecosystem resilience theories and I would like to hear your thoughts sometime about the idea that it might take some sort of sudden and salient disruption to set the stage for a movement toward sustainability and if the timing is right, supportive efforts will be fueled by the momentum (individually and globally, psychologically and evolutionary, naturally and inevitably) toward this change in direction.

  2. Ryan, I second Chad's first paragraph. To the point at hand, I agree that these issues are complex, and therefor, require complex solutions (like Chad mentioned, something that makes sense one way doesn't tend to make sense another way). However, I have to believe that if we can work to together to find and make solutions, decisions, and choices that makes sense in a multidue of ways, if not all, then we can have a sustainable way of life. hopefully...

  3. I first visited Amory Lovins at Snowmass in 1992. He showed me his dog that he claims heats the complex that rests 7000 feet up. More recently, I am reading his newest book, Reinventing Fire, released a few weeks ago. He would disagree with Chad that what makes ecological sense doesn't make economic sense (so would Janine Benyus). Replay the first line of his TED talk. His concept of "tunneling through" really works.

    As for a disruption that may change everything, read Paul Gilding's book, The Great Disruption. Mankind sometimes does pretty well when on the brink of a great disruption. Sometimes not so much. Gilding thinks everyone will get it eventually. I hope he is right.