Energy Transformation and “Moore’s Curse”: Realism Before Action
[Editor Comment: Previous posts at MasterResource (see here and here) have critically reviewed Moore's Law applied to energy systems. Mr. Lightfoot revisits the issue below based on his article in Engineering Dimensions (May/June 2013). His views about the need for government direction to achieve energy transformation are the author's alone.]
In a 2009 speech before the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about hope for the future:
“It took us centuries to get from the printing press to the telephone, decades to get from the telephone to the personal computer, and only a few years to get from the personal computer to the internet. What seemed impossible a few years ago is already outdated, and we can scarcely fathom the changes that are yet to come. We will crack the genetic code. We will cure the incurable. We will lengthen our lives. We will find a cheap alternative to fossil fuels and clean up the planet.”
Mr. Netanyahu was expressing a commonly held assumption – that the history of telecommunications and microelectronic development will predict the development trajectory of a low-carbon energy future.
The phenomenon described by Mr. Netanyahu is called Moore’s Law, named after the co-founder of Intel, Gordon E. Moore, who described the trend of accelerating computing development in the 1960s. He noted that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. This trend has continued for more than half a century.
Vaclav Smil, a widely recognized energy expert, has written extensively on the history of energy technology development, taking a multi-disciplinary approach. He has given due consideration to the viability of applying Moore’s Law to energy systems. His views on this subject can be summarized as follows from his 2006 speech “Energy at the Crossroads,” given at the 2006 OECD Global Science Forum:
“[F]uture technical developments will not conform to simplistic notions of accelerated development and exponentially declining costs of new conversions”…. Energy transitions span generations and not, microprocessor-like, years or even months: there is no Moore’s law for energy systems.”
Professor Smil has even given a name to the belief that transitioning to a low carbon/sustainable energy future will follow a Moore’s Law like trajectory – Moore’s Curse. Moore’s Curse, leads to several negative outcomes:
Ineffective and wasteful policies. When political leaders have unrealistic views of the likely outcomes of decisions, the result is bad decisions and expensive, ineffective policies. One example that I am fairly familiar with, Ontario Canada’s Green Energy Act (GEA), forces utilities to buy “green” electricity whenever available at prices three to eight times the current cost of electricity. This extra cost is passed on to residential and industrial consumers. The responsible cabinet minister famously said that any additional cost to consumers would be minimal, that their electricity bills would increase by about one percent per year. The Ontario Government’s own Task Force on Competitiveness, Productivity and Economic Progress recently cited a report showing residential electricity costs are expected to increase at an annual rate of 6.7% to 8% over the next five years.
Distracts us from pursing real solutions. The fundamental reason that alternative and renewable energies are difficult to implement in the real world is that they are dilute. Thus, for this single reason, it is difficult to replace energy dense fuels like petroleum with renewable energy. If the ultimate objective is to wean our society off the use of carbon based fuels while maintaining our material standard of living, the only real-life solution is to electrify as much of our infrastructure as possible (including massively increased public transportation), and expand the use of nuclear power electrical generation. While we in North America actively pursue dilute and intermittent renewable energy solutions, France and China are taking the rational path. Nuclear power for electricity generation accounts for 80% of electrical power used in France, while China has twenty-five nuclear power stations under construction as of 2010.
Sets unrealistic expectations. Ask any motivational psychologist about goal setting and they will tell you it is critical to set significant, but achievable, targets for improvement. Without pushing oneself to achieve progressively better performance in any endeavor, the result is stagnation. But setting unrealistic and unachievable targets is no better. Striving for, and then failing to achieve ones goals, leads to de-motivation.
This de-motivation can take many forms. Being sold exaggerated capabilities that are constantly unrealized, leads to a pernicious cycle of disenchantment with authority. This distrust of authority leads to progressively increasing cynicism in the population.
Our energy infrastructures are too complex and pervasive to permit anything other than a slow transition to a low carbon/sustainable energy future. Again quoting Smil:
“[Our] inherently energy-intensive systems make large-scale high-power-density conversions producing electricity indispensible for decades to come. Any rapid substitutions by low-power-density renewable flows are illusory without dismantling existing urban societies.”
Rational government policies and regulations engendering optimal outcomes are needed now. Three policies I recommend at the state/provincial and federal levels (and other contributors to MasterResource may prefer no government direction at all) are:
1. Set up independent, apolitical energy advisory bodies
One of the challenges that democracies face in this regard is having relatively short-term election cycles. Governments and policies change on a relatively short term basis, frustrating attempts at long term planning. John Hofmeister, author of “Why We Hate The Oil Companies” and a former executive with Shell Oil, has written about this problem from an American perspective. Hofmeister proposes that US energy policy be guided by an independent, apolitical board of governors, somewhat like what the Federal Reserve does for the monetary system. The members’ terms would be long, like the Fed governors’ 14-year terms, to help insulate them from political pressures and because energy projects are not short-term.
2. Prioritize research and investment
All future systems that may be used in a low carbon/sustainable energy economy are not created equal. There are many realities that have to be considered when evaluating and investing in the development of new energy systems.
The reality of energy density, and importantly power density (energy flow), is inevitably at the top of the list of such realities. Vaclav Smil states in the text for his above referenced “Energy at the Crossroads” speech: “Rational allocation of research monies should take the magnitudes of these [energy] flows, as well as the typical power densities of these resources, into account.”
For example, nuclear power is very energy and power dense, while wave power is dilute and intermittent. Investing large amounts of research money in wave power does not make sense relative to investment in improving the safety and usability of the next generation of nuclear power. For more information on power density, see the Smil MasterResource series on this subject.
Other realities must also be considered, including practicality, scalability, commercial and regulatory matters. Quoting again from Smil:
“[D]ubious claims made on behalf of small-scale, experimental and demonstration-size techniques are no substitutes for mercilessly critical appraisals based on the first principles; biased promotions of grand theoretical solutions rarely survive brutal encounters with scaling up for large-scale, reliable operations in the real world.”
All government monies that are invested in new energy systems must be prioritized on those systems with the greatest ability to address real-life issues.
The Canadian Society of Senior Engineers (CSSE) recently released a document entitled “Energy Compass 2020 and Beyond – A Recommended Canadian Energy Decision Framework” that outlines a rational approach to investment in Canada’s energy future. One of the report’s major recommendations is that:
“[T]he use of indigenous nuclear energy be the 1st choice, in provinces in which hydraulic energy sources (hydro power) are either minimal or have been essentially fully-exploited, followed by indigenous natural gas, oil, coal, biomass, geothermal, wind, solar and tidal in that order.”
Hydro and natural gas are rated equally in second place. Wind and solar are tenth and eleventh respectively. This prioritization is determined by 26 measures under the general headings of:
- Health enhancement, including water and air quality, health enhancement knowledge, improving lifestyles and medical diagnosing and treatment
- Security enhancement, including security enhancement knowledge, security of households, neighbourhoods, cities, countries and world peace
- Wealth enhancement including personal, municipalities, states/provinces and nations as well as our natural environment
- Education system enhancement, including family and community life, education systems and diversification of work experience.
3. Public education campaigns by unbiased and knowledgeable sources
Consciously changing our energy systems to rely less (or not at all) on fossil fuels is a long-term affair, and one that in the author’s opinion is likely desirable and ultimately essential. As things stand today, there is a great misunderstanding among the population that there are easy and ready solutions.
This is at least part driven by unaccountable interest groups, who for decades now, have waged public relations campaigns telling us that the wide scale use of renewable energies is possible. The reality of the political process in democratic states is that politicians are driven by polls and public opinion. If the public believes that easy solutions to energy problems are available, politicians will pander to it, with “easy” solutions.
There are no free lunches. Because there is a direct link between energy use and material standard of living, any rapid decreases in energy use patterns will mean a lower material standard of living.
We need public relations campaigns from unbiased and knowledgeable sources to educate all on the reality of the energy challenges facing our society and the importance of energy to our lives. Encouraging politicians to do the right thing requires an educated public that understands the reality of the challenges facing us and the hard choices needed.
The pressure to develop a low carbon/sustainable energy future has resulted in belief systems that this transition can and will happen quickly. Moore’s Curse, or incorrectly believing that Moore’s Law applies to energy systems, leads to overoptimistic views of how things can change, which leads to wasteful and ineffective public policy and distracts our society from pursuing real, if imperfect, solutions.
Policy initiatives that can be implemented include setting up independent, apolitical energy advisory bodies that can provide realistic long-term guidance on national and provincial energy policy, the prioritization of financial resources rationally allocated to research and investment, and a communications policy to the public to explain the difficult and long-term nature of the challenge.
No doubt your new smart phone, iPad, or computer is an amazing device and fully representative of Moore’s Law as it applies to microelectronics. Just don’t assume that its existence will tell you very much about where your electric power is going to come from in two years, let alone 10.
Steven D. Lightfoot is a Professional Engineer with 20 years of multi-disciplinary experience in the machinery engineering and power generation industries. He is a member of the Order of Engineers of Quebec. He writes and speaks on energy, engineering and related policy matters.