Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2011 > Article Detail


A Better Energy Strategy?

To the Editors:

Alex Pavlak’s Macroscope essay “Strategy Versus Evolution” in the November–December issue is a demonstration of the principle that asking the wrong question leads to the wrong answer. Either that, or he already had an answer and was casting about for a plausible question.

The essay about achieving President Obama’s 2050 carbon dioxide emission goal is based on two unstated assumptions. One is that future energy consumption must remain at current levels. The other is that the grid must remain demand-based. In essence he advocates business-as-usual, but with a different energy source.

I argue that our high rate of energy consumption—most of the world runs cheerfully on much less—starts with the availability of cheap energy rather than from genuine need. Reducing consumption and increasing efficiency could make great strides toward the 2050 goal.

The grid currently adjusts to meet demand because most existing generation facilities work well that way and because, until recently, we didn’t have the technology to implement a supply-based model. With a supply-based grid the price of electricity would vary minute by minute. When the sun shines and the wind blows, electricity would be less expensive; at other times the price would rise. Demand could be met by existing hydroelectric installations.

Reduced energy consumption and a supply-based grid may be unfamiliar now, but the future will be significantly different from the present. Nuclear is the energy of the future, but it will be nuclear-fusion energy from the Sun.

Cam Farnell
Halifax, Nova Scotia

To the Editors:

Like most writers addressing the environment or the overuse of natural resources, Alex Pavlak fails to take population growth into account. The U.S. population is expected to grow from 296 million in 2005 to 438 million in 2050, an increase of 48 percent. Assuming the same per capita emissions rate with no emissions mitigation, the total rate in 2050 would be 8838 million metric tons. Thus, to achieve Obama’s goal of 1,015 million metric tons, the per capita reduction must be 89 percent, not 83 percent. Perhaps any emissions-reduction strategy should include efforts to limit our population growth.

Also, I question Dr. Pavlak’s conclusion that a strategic approach to CO2 emissions reduction is superior to an evolutionary approach. Restructuring our energy economy might be unplannable. History demonstrates that a strategic approach to economic problems above a certain size fails, due to their complexity and unforeseeable variables. The planned economies of communist countries in the 20th century are prime examples.

Furthermore, failures of the evolutionary method often are not failures of the method itself, but of a government’s skewed approach to fostering economic evolution. Typically the U.S. employs targeted subsidies or tax breaks to encourage investment in specific technologies, essentially micromanaging the process.

Imposing a carbon tax is the most promising government strategy. A simple tax would send a broad signal to entrepreneurs and scientists to invest in developing noncarbon-based energy sources, some perhaps yet to be discovered or perfected, and would allow the free market to find the solution.

Mark W. Zacharias
Langhorne, PA

Dr. Pavlak responds:

Cam Farnell and Mark Zacharias correctly point to a flaw in my essay. I did not explain that I assume that growth in demand will be balanced by conservation and efficiency to produce no net consumption growth. History teaches us as much: Under the duress of two oil embargoes, U.S. energy consumption remained flat between 1973 and 1987.

My essay pleads for disciplined strategic scenario development. Farnell’s notion of a supply-based grid needs to be explored. But put numbers to it. How much storage would be required to reduce the no-wind, no-power risk to acceptable levels? Is it feasible?

Zacharias’s question about the limits of planning gets to the heart of my paper. Plans require goals. If we have clear and stable goals, planning helps avoid big mistakes (such as those we are making in clean energy). Complexity per se is not an issue. We can manage enormous complexity if we have clear and stable goals.

So-called “wicked” problems have fuzzy goals. Most social problems involving value choices are wicked: consumer products, health care, economies. We attack these through iteration, spiral development, agile development and rapid prototyping with market feedback. Unfortunately, this local optimization can lead to ugly, expensive systems and evolutionary dead ends that can fall way short.

Evolution develops everything that can reduce emissions today, even though some technologies conflict with the goal of a zero-carbon grid. Strategic planning produces clear priorities because it focuses on the very few known technologies that can deliver that grid.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist