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Strategy Versus Evolution

Reaching President Obama’s CO2 emissions goal for 2050 will require strategic planning

Alex Pavlak

Systems from Scratch

Engineers use two approaches to create new systems. One is agile development, the other is classical planning. Agile development, sometimes called rapid prototyping, is a valuable approach for consumer products serving markets in flux. The idea is to get an early prototype to the end user quickly to discover where the real value lies. Developers then make improvements. The approach is useful when time to market is important, requirements are unclear, and the technology is changing. Agile development is the reason we have seen so many updates of the Windows operating system. The downside to agile development is that it leads to ugly, buggy and inefficient systems. Again, think Windows.

Classical planning is the best approach when requirements are explicit; reliability is important (no agile development for spacecraft); the technology is stable; and the cost of deployment is high (get long-distance power transmission right the first time). Another advantage of disciplined classical planning is education of the public along the way as scenarios are reviewed.

Agile development starts from where we are and works through a trial-and-error process similar to natural selection. Agile development is excellent when you don’t know what you want until you see it. Classical planning starts from where we want to be and works backwards to develop a plan to get there from here.

The U.S. National Research Council has published a series of studies under the title America’s Energy Future, in which committees were asked to develop a “reference scenario” that reflects a projection of technology, cost and performance. The Summary Edition published in late 2009 concluded that “...There is no ‘silver bullet’ technology that can be deployed to overcome U.S. energy challenges. Contributions will be needed from the full array of currently available and emerging technologies.” That is not a useful conclusion. We need to resist putting faith in a shotgun approach and focus on a comprehensive program designed to get us to the 2050 goal.

The danger with the evolutionary task statement is that it leads to huge investments in infrastructure, such as long-distance electricity transmission to support wind power, before it has been demonstrates that wind will have a role in the new system.

Rational planning begins with strategic scenarios, simple system models of end-state solutions. Any architectural problem involves a set of models with enough detail to capture the structural components and produce rational estimates of cost, performance, schedule and risk. Models are based on what we know today, ignoring legacy system constraints and current policy.

Strategic scenarios are subjected to critical design reviews, the more public the better, to smoke out biases and improve objectivity. The results are then presented to policy makers for value judgments, including how much cost, performance and schedule risk is acceptable. A sketch of opening arguments for two strategic scenarios demonstrates how they compare with evolutionary thinking.

Nuclear Scenario—The development of nuclear power has been held up by unresolved waste and safety issues. Robust scenario development would require engineering solutions for both issues, rolled out in a way that explains feasible solutions to the general public during critical reviews and to policy makers during management reviews. An educated public simplifies policy. From a strategic perspective, policy makers must face the question of whether we can reach or even come close to the strategic goal without nuclear power as our primary energy source. A thorough 2050 scenario analysis would almost certainly conclude that nuclear power must have a central role.

Many feel that the job of converting to nuclear on a vast scale faces too many roadblocks. Is it true? During the past 40 years, the French built an electric-power system that is 78 percent nuclear. During the next 40 years, the U.S. could surely do the same if not better, having the example of France in view.

A persistent argument against nuclear power is the cost compared to alternatives. An important reason costs are high is the high cost of capital for nuclear construction due to political uncertainty. A widely consulted MIT interdisciplinary study, The Future of Nuclear Power, and the International Energy Agency have both estimated the direct cost of various generator technologies using the same cost of capital, which is an achievable policy goal. Both conclude that if the capital cost of electricity from natural gas, coal and nuclear light-water reactors were to be levelized, the cost of energy per kilowatt hour would be about the same.

Motor Vehicle Scenario—Our top-level analysis of the challenge earlier showed that both zero-carbon electric power and a zero-carbon motor vehicle fuel are essential to achieving an 83-percent reduction in CO2 emissions. One purpose of scenario development is to identify the lines of research that are most likely to be productive. Cars propelled by hydrogen fuel cells, with hydrogen generated by zero-carbon electricity, probably nuclear, are a feasible option for the future. Building an infrastructure for fuel cells and introducing them to market will require a clear vision and considerable investment. The investment must inevitably compete with other options such as development of wind power. One will crowd the other. A determination must then be made about which direction is more likely to put us on the path to reaching the 2050 goal.

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