Can technology Save us: Energy Problems

Energy is one of our largest concerns moving forward. We know, at least on some levels, that the technology that is feeding us power isn’t exactly the cleanest technology or power sources. For the most part, the US is powered through coal and natural gas. Between these two roughly two thirds of our power is generated. Both of these power sources need to be extracted from the ground. There are several ways to extract coal from the earth, those of us from Pennsylvania know of both of these. The first is the old fashioned digging of huge mines. In some cases these mines catch on fire and can burn continually until all the coal is burned through. This can take decades or centuries. Not only that, but if you’ve seen ads or the show Coal on Discovery, you know that it’s horribly unhealthy for the miners and can lead to black lung. The other method is mountain top removal, which is less well known but equally destructive. According to a recent study it has removed 500 peaks and eliminated 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia mountain range.

Natural gas extraction is equally destructive, but it’s talked about less frequently than mountain top removal. Fracking has been banned in several countries and regulation in US states has been mixed (Ohio very strict PA very lax). However, the US is being compared to Saudi Arabia in terms of the quantity of Natural Gas in the ground (these estimates are highly contested). Because of the abundance natural gas is being touted as the clean alternative to coal. While it is true that natural gas does burn cleaner than coal it still is not a clean reaction. As it is a hydrocarbon molecule it’s reaction does not lead to 100% efficiency and only water as a resultant material. It still produces Carbon DiOxide but at a much lower rate than coal or gasoline (benzine).

While it is strongly debated among politicians the use of coal and natural gas are causing climate change (Obama compared them to Flat Earth Society members), it’s fairly obvious that they cause local pollution levels to increase. However, as we saw from the Iceland volcano ash and other pollutants are able to enter the jet stream and move around the world. This same affect can happen with coal and natural gas power plants.

However, as technology caused a great deal of these problems perhaps it can fix them. One of the first technologies that we should look at is captured carbon sequestering (CCS), which I’ve discussed before. This could help remove the excess carbon in the atmosphere now. However, there are risks it does reduce housing values and can leak to the surface in a similar manner as smoke from a coal fire. However, there has been success in countries like Iceland. While this is small scale, its the appropriate level to be testing in the US. There are several different technologies for CCS and many states in the US could experiment with different technologies. This will allow the selection of the best technology. The US government should encourage testing different technologies through programs at the state level to designed to increase testing different technology. This could include highest capture and lowest leakage rate from the captured location. Companies could then bid on the right to use their technology for the projects. Additionally, as this can be tied to economic benefits such as job creation and pollution reduction, without impacting current power production, it should gain bipartisan support.

Io9 recently had an interesting article about using caves as a method for batteries. This technology, while very very young, would be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave (when that matures more). This would allow for a massive storage area for extremely windy or sunny days to effectively smooth the energy production for a region. In addition it also could be used to buffer from over production for traditional power plants as well. It is difficult to plan for excess demand, but if these caves could be used to store energy from a colder time of the year until the summer it could be used to buffer against increased demand during the hot summer months.

Renewable energy sources must be part of any plan to create a national energy plan for any country. Without these energy independence would be impossible. Creating incentives for home owners and removing barriers, such as home owner associations that are against solar panels, should be a goal of government at several levels. Austin currently has a huge push for renewable energies where something lie 35% or more of the city energy needs should be generated by renewables in 2020. Including individual home owners in this plan will make it easier to reach.

Finally, nuclear reactors will also be required for wide area energy generation. Currently nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of US energy production. Developing safer techniques for nuclear energy generation is extremely important with Fukashima and the risk for using the same technology for creation nuclear weapons. Fortunately there are safer materials to use. One of them is called Thorium. This material reacts more safely and cannot be used to create weapons. This type of reactor would also be extremely useful for desalinating water.

To achieve true energy independence we will need to use all of the available materials for energy production. It will likely require a transition period from coal to natural gas to a combination of renewable energy sources and nuclear reactors. This will likely take 20 to 30 years. However, we need to use economic and national security as much as environmental concerns to win the argument. With the current mentality in the US government environmental arguments are not likely to win over many converts. Using job creation, through construction and managing the facility, and the long term economic benefits will likely win over more converts than any other method. Including in the argument a way to capture the pollution as a method of reducing pollution rather than simply require cleaner burning is also likely to win over converts as the GOP tries to defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is likely to be a difficult fight to get the US to be independent of foreign energy sources, but it is possible. To do so will require a clear plan of action. Sadly, the US has been lacking that for the past few decades.

Enabling Technological Convergences

In my last post I discussed technological convergences. I didn’t really discuss anything ground breaking or earth shattering. We all know these things happen. Even if we never really make a note of it. What’s a more interesting question though is why do some companies, like Apple and Blackberry, succeed and others like Microsoft and Rio (early MP3 maker) fail, either in creating technologies that converge or create technologies that then fail.

One of the first reasons is the culture of the company. To create a totally different product that will shake the core business firms may have to do something called “corporate venturing.” This is where a company decides they are going to take people that normally work on the major product and put them into a different area and seclude them and allow them to create a new product. Whatever sort of leadership structure develops, develops. It really doesn’t matter if this matches the rest of the firm. Essentially, these people are put into a position where they are starting a new company. Apple famously did this with the original Macintosh program. It was called a skunk works area. Of course recombining the two portions of a company creates huge problems, but good management can figure out how to deal with this.

Another piece required for a firm to successfully move into a new product space is the ability to identify the market need. This one is pretty obvious, but it still needs mentioning. In many cases it’s really obvious that there’s a product space and that some one should fill it. When companies don’t move into it there must be some sort of reason.

One of those reasons comes down to firm capabilities. Every firm has something at its core that it’s best at. I would argue that Microsoft is best at taking advantage of a virtual monopoly of a platform and moving into new directions within that platform. Internet Explorer and the Office Suite are the best example of this. Microsoft has also tried to do this with servers and other peripheries. Which is why Microsoft has had difficulty moving into other platform positions. They have failed (or mixed results at best) over and over again with phone OSes because it doesn’t rely on their dominate platform.

Another company that is an R&D powerhouse in energy but has failed at anything outside of their major focus is Shell. As a major energy company you’d expect Shell to be moving into other types of energy production to make massive amounts of money in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. You’d actually be right. They have tired and failed. Aside from having a failed solar industry Shell has a moderately successful Wind program. Between the two it actually makes sense why solar failed and wind is doing well.

First, wind is closer to extracting material from the ground than making energy from the sun is. Now hang on, I know, but Shell has to maintain offshore oil rigs in tough conditions. Understanding how to build a wind farm out in the ocean has some similarities. Shell doesn’t actually make the windmills themselves, they buy the windmills and put them together to harvest energy. Shell was trying to make solar panels. Intel would be a significantly better solar panel producer than Shell. Why? Because solar panels are semiconductors. You make them with similar machines the technologies are adjacent to each other.

What’s technological adjacency? It’s whenever you are able to use your current skills and apply them with some research to a related technological field. I’ll discuss this more in my next blog.

Technocrats and Technology II

In my previous post I outlined some of the problems facing the energy sector in terms of determining the best course of action in the wake of the Fukushima reactor disaster. One of the solutions was to create a group of experts to determine the best mixtures of technologies and sources of energy. However, there are clearly flaws with this methodology. First, there’s the problem of trust in these experts. Second, there’s obviously a lack of input from the general public. Third, there’s problems with selecting technologies themselves.

As I mentioned yesterday, experts can claim many different things and using the right language can make something that’s incredible sound credible. When these experts put out information or opinions how can we trust it? Can we be sure they aren’t on the pay roll of big oil or big coal? If these experts are university professors how can we be sure they aren’t part of some global warming conspiracy? I think that it’s obvious there will be influences from oil and coal. These are to be expected and the goal should be to actually welcome them into the discussion. We should attempt to include them, however we need to give them the same weight of opinion with their obvious bias as any other expert on the panel. The difference is that we want it to be known that they are going to be rooting for oil/coal. Why? because we can more easily critically analyze their economic data knowing for sure where it comes from. This goes the same for a scientist that is heavily pushing solar or wind energy. We should know that they support it so we can have an honest discussion.

Public participation is a huge problem as well. Without proper support from local groups, agencies and governments a promising energy program and be killed. “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) is always a hugely successful counter attack to many of green energy programs. People don’t want to have giant windmills over looking the beautiful landscape or oceanscape they cherish. Understanding these concerns and getting input into the the process from the public can lead to greater social acceptance of a plan. Also, making it clear who the information is coming from also will improve the tone of conversations. Without the clarity of information sources public opinion can quickly turn from a project.

Finally, what technologies should we use? Public opinion and vested interest in legacy technologies is very difficult to overcome. Especially when a technology like solar energy is more expensive than coal power, and has less consistent energy profiles. Of the solar technologies how do we select which technology is the best? How do we pick the right nuclear power plants? There are many different technologies out there competing. There is not a clear which technology a government plan should invest in. We are likely to pick a loser technology. However, we still need to choose something. I have mentioned it previously some ways to select technology. I’ll discuss more of that in my next post.

Technocrats and Technology

On my way back from Oktoberfest, which was awesome, my fellow car passengers discussed the decision by Germany to phase out nuclear energy over time. We all felt that this was an incredibly stupid long term decision. We agreed that it was a knee jerk reaction to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. However, this raised some other questions about how to enact energy policy choices as well as other technology/science policies. We mostly focused on energy as that was the topic of interest, but it really does spill over to most scientific/technology policies at a national level.

The obvious solution to most engineers is to set up a panel of experts and have them come up with the best choices for energy sources. There are some flaws to this line of thinking, sadly. First, who selects these experts? Let’s use the US as a model country in this regard. There will be a huge battle over what experts should be included in the panel. If it has to be split 50/50 between experts selected by the Republicans and Democrats we’ll most likely have a group of lobbyists for the Oil and Gas industries from the Republicans, and a mixture of wind and solar experts from the Democrats. Nuclear energy maybe completely left off the radar. Even though there are tons of technologies out there that are hugely safer than the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

Additionally, nuclear energy has a stigma associated with it due to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. It doesn’t matter that coal is as destructive or that oil and natural gas extraction causes almost immediate negative impacts in the local environment. Why? Because these are huge job creation industries and also have been legitimatized over the course of the past 100+ years in many regions. For example in Pennsylvania, where Three Mile Island resides, coal is a way of life for many people. It has been an occupation that many people have been doing all their lives. There are nuclear facilities in the state still, but they are viewed with much more skepticism, lack of trust and fear by local residents.

Many engineers are something of a technocrat, where they believe that technology can solve a huge number of issues and that technology experts should be making many policy decisions related to technology issues. These technocrats are viewed with skepticism from the broader public. In many cases there are huge debates over the sources of the data and the reports which accompany many of these technology experts. In the case of GMO, even when the public is given information from both sides it is not trusted. Why? because people have lost faith in their governments and believe that there are scientific conspiracies to enact practices that are dangerous.

In my next blog I’ll discuss some more issues with these topics. I’ll go into some detail of cases where large differences in views were eventually over come.