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.