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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 What seemed impossible a few years ago is already outdated, and we can scarcely fathom the changes that are yet to come.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 speechEnergy 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.”

Moore’s Curse

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 CurseMoore’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.

Policy Solutions

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.”[1]

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.

Conclusions

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.


 [1] Smil, Vaclav (2008). “Energy in Nature and Society – General Energetics of Complex Systems” p360.

3 comments

1 rbradley { 11.29.12 at 9:22 am }

The fact that renewable energy technologies as we know them today have been perennial losers suggests that their time is way off, and the form that they might take will be very different.

For those concerned about the human influence on climate from GHG emissions, adaptation rather than mitigation should be the focus for scarce resources.

So I question the need for government-directed energy transformation versus letting the price system and profit/loss quide what in the aggregate we call the energy market.

2 Marlo Lewis { 11.29.12 at 1:16 pm }

Stephen, thank you for ably debunking Moore’s curse. Renewable energy hucksters wrap themselves in the mantle of America’s ‘can-do’ spirit, invoke the wonders of Yankee ingenuity, and then cite the Internet, cell phones, and iPads as proof that the only real obstacles to a green tech future are political (“oil-fueled, coal-fired politicians,” to quote James Hansen). You expose this line of chatter as nonsense.

I am not a fan of your solutions, however. The proposed board of governors would be modeled on the Federal Reserve. Some analysts partly blame the Fed (via low interest rates) for the housing bubble and subsequent financial meltdown. Some (Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, albeit for different reasons) partly blame the Fed for the Great Depression.

The Fed ‘guides’ by manipulating interest rates and the money supply. What energy prices or quantities would the proposed energy board manipulate? I would much rather the market guide energy investment than any collection of the smartest guys in the room.

The proposed 14-year term could make matters worse. Insulation from short-term political pressures is another way of saying lack of political accountability.

If the EPA’s takeover of climate policy has taught us anything, it is that energy markets may be more vulnerable to political manipulation when decision making is transferred from the people’s representatives to those who hide behind the pretense of apolitical expertise.

One small reform that might help would be to assign to separate agencies the analytic and coercive functions that the Administrative State puts in the same set of hands. The Statist Quo embodies a pervasive conflict of interest, because the same agency that (for example) controls power plant emissions also does the analyses requiring the imposition of such controls.

Prioritizing R&D based on energy density makes sense, though I suspect little R&D would be wasted on diffuse energy in a competitive marketplace. But lay out 26 criteria for prioritizing R&D, including such nebulous measures as “improving lifestyles,” and the door is open to every special pleader unable to find willing buyers for this product.

Finally, yes, there is a great deal of public misunderstanding about energy, which ideologues and rent seekers continually exploit. But remember, every interest group claims to be an “unbiased and knowledgeable source.” Lacking philosopher-kings, there is no substitute for the adversarial process of public debate.

3 steven lightfoot { 12.18.12 at 4:26 pm }

Marlo,

Thanks for your comments.

As you say the renewable energy hucksters play on that can-do entrepreneurial (American) spirit.

I have noticed that many of these entrepreneurial players in the cleantech/green energy marketplace are in fact previously successful high tech (IT, telecommunications, etc) entrepreneurs who have experienced Moore’s Law firsthand and think it applicable in every domain. They think the next pot of gold is in cleantech/green energy without any understanding that the energy business, and more importantly, the physics, is completely different.

So while I am not sure the best word to describe them is huckster exactly (although I have no problem using it) because I usually see no malice, rather, I see them as overly optimistic and uninformed. But I suppose the outcomes of their actions would be the same as those caused by hucksters with mal intent.

In reply to your comments about not agreeing with my solutions, let me give me background of who I am and where I come from:

1) I have been cutting my teeth in the energy engineering profession for over 20 years, covering all aspects of gas turbine engineering, and now thermal power engineering more generally. I am both deep and broad in my energy engineering professional experience. I have also been closely following the global warming debate for 20 years (since Rio 1992) and have thus been following energy related policies for a long time (due to my Fathers involvement, see http://www.thelightfootinstitute.ca). I have always had an interest in politics, but only now has my professional expertise matured to the point where I can meaningfully contribute to policy.

2) What has motivated me to get involved in energy policy today is my increasing frustration at current energy policy being pursued, with a bias towards renewables and an absence of critical thinking and engineering expertise in this policy area. The things that come out of Politicians mouths, especially from those on the left, is distressing in its ignorance of basic scientific and engineering truths.

3) Having now been involved and around political and policy people for about five years, I have come to understand that most people involved in these areas do not have technical backgrounds. Technical expertise is a necessary prerequisite for getting energy policy right, as is a good understanding of economic, legal and governance issues. But it’s this technical element of expertise (scientific literacy as minimum) that I see lacking. It is also a fact that most technical people don’t get involved in public policy and usually stay involved in the technical and business arena. This compartmentalization of skills and experience has real and practical policy consequences.

So, this is all just background. Now on to two of your comments:

A) “But remember, every interest group claims to be an “unbiased and knowledgeable source.”

I agree that this is the case. Everyone thinks they are an expert and doesn’t mind sharing this opinion with the world.

But is it not true that there are in fact people and bodies that know more than others on any given subject? Of course there are, and the existence of professional regulatory and governing bodies demonstrates this (AMA, professional engineering bodies, etc)

My appeal is to have more people with legitimate experience and qualifications leading policy decisions. It may be a matter of discussion for how to bring this about (see below).

B) “Lacking philosopher-kings, there is no substitute for the adversarial process of public debate.”

Those advocating for direct democracy might say so. I do not. I think there needs to be a balance struck between democracy, the fight in the marketplace of ideas, and the retention of sufficient expertise in place to make sure good decisions are made.

The reality is there are some people (and groups) on the aggregate that know a lot more than others and are far better qualified to make important policy decisions, especially decision that involved highly detailed technical or quantified information.

This is why I see that there is a role for non-partisan non-elected bodies working in conjunction with elected leaders to set energy policy.

There are have attempts in Canada to do this, with bodies such as the NEB (National Energy Board) which, until recently, had final authority over interprovincial pipelines and transmission lines. Also, the province of Ontario had set up the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) in the early 2000s when it privatized its power sector to have the final word on power policy, etc.

The NEB has just lost its exclusive power as the current government has now given itself a cabinet veto over it (the first in its 50 existence). The OPA never really had political independence as it was supposed to and the current government overrode it repeatedly with ministerial directives setting up Ontario as a place for green energy with the Green Energy Act (causing all sorts of negative unintended consequences as we speak).

I think my ultimate point here is to de-politicize energy policy decisions to the largest degree possible, maybe an impossible task.

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