“Adding more milk to the milk already in a pail just gives you more milk, but adding another cow to the one you already have does not give you a larger cow. In the same way, pouring half the milk you already have into a second pail gives you two smaller amounts of milk, but dividing the cow in half does not give you two smaller cows. You may end up with a lot of hamburger, but the essential nature of ‘cow’ – a living system capable, among other things, of turning grass into milk, would be lost.”
- Systems one: an introduction to systems thinking by Draper Kauffman, 1980
California a place of staggering variety. It really does have it all – from skiing to deserts, from oceans to forests, from agriculture to Hollywood, from Malibu to Musk, from middle-America Price-Is-Right micro-stardom to incognito movie stars sharing Venice’s sidewalks with guys crapping in the street, the world’s fifth-largest economy is like the globe in miniature. It would seem there is nothing the place can’t do.
Except, these days, provide power to its citizens. Over the past few years, the state has suffered rolling blackouts as though it were some tin-pot dictatorship prone to coups. Last year the blackouts were from voluntarily shutting down of segments of under-maintained powerlines that were causing fires. But that was so 2019. This year, the blackouts are simply because there isn’t enough power to go around when needed. It shouldn’t be a shock; the problem had been forecast by both the independent system operator and the former head of the California Public Utilities Commission. (Witness two different views from two pointedly different backgrounds: “We’re moving forward with a low-carbon grid and I think the direction is really clear and we’re not going back,” said ISO governor Mary Leslie, holder of a Masters degree in Public Administration. “One hundred percent renewable energy is just a fiction and it’s time to get that straightened out,” said Gary Ackerman, former executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum. Pick your expert.)
The state is on a drive to renewable energy, and as such is phasing out natural gas/coal/nuclear as fast as their little Academy-Award-winning legs will let them. This has consequences. Not everyone is willing to face them; when the recent blackouts happened the choir of angry birds on social media leapt to the defense of renewables, saying batteries would save the day soon (they won’t) or that a few hours without power is a small price to pay (I’ll leave you to judge that). Others like National Geographic said the problem was a heat wave and inevitably blamed climate change, because apparently heat waves are unprecedented.
The NG article however did inadvertently bring into the light a stark problem that is much bigger and covers this whole conversation like a storm cloud. From the article: “Climate experts say full decarbonization of electricity generation systems will be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” to meet IPCC targets.
Now we’re getting to see the bigger problem: that decision-makers can’t tell the difference between splitting a pail of milk and splitting a cow. California offers stark evidence as a petri dish example that policymakers are acting without proper systemic thinking. California’s plan was that going full renewable was a viable option because it could simply import power as required from other states, which seems unfathomably obtuse when other states are following California’s lead due to activist pressure. And that brings us back to the shocking absence of any sort of bigger vision, of any visible attempt to understand the complexity and challenges of the “decarbonisation” advocates are pursuing like moths pursue a flame.
An interesting series of articles on Medium examines the concept of systemic thinking. Consider this quote from one of them: “When it comes to systems thinking, the goal is synthesis, as opposed to analysis, which is the dissection of complexity into manageable components. Analysis fits into the mechanical and reductionist worldview, where the world is broken down into parts…But all systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understanding phenomena.”
That’s the concept, here’s the execution part, and where things go off the rails, energy-wise: “What makes system thinking applicable in real-world problem solving, without overwhelming the practitioner, is the power of defining a system boundary. Without a clear boundary, there are infinite interconnected possibilities, which often overwhelms new systems thinkers. It’s the vastness — the seemingly endless possibility — that often trips up newbies and can make some brains explode…” [emphasis added]
Want to know why an energy transition, when framed as decarbonisation, is such a paralyzing and/or contentious proposition? It’s because decarbonising our energy systems is a global issue, without boundaries, and indeed with an infinite number of interconnected possibilities.
Think about any one aspect of decarbonisation. Let’s take oil consumption. Imagine any aspect of modern society, without oil consumption. It’s very hard to do, because the consumption isn’t visible, yet it’s everywhere. To even imagine it, you’d have to understand the depth of our usage of hydrocarbons, and few have any clue whatsoever. For example, every element in our cell phone (70+ elements) has a chain of production that involves countless threads of petroleum usage to bring it to a consumable state. Understanding and replacing any one of those systems would be a challenge of monumental proportions (imagine aluminum mining/processing/production/transportation without hydrocarbons, as but one example).
We can’t do it. We can’t imagine what actual decarbonisation would take. Some think they can imagine it, in an academic/modelling way, which is much the way the former Soviet Union imagined a bright future and five-year-planned their way into oblivion.
There are a thousand other systems out there that would be impacted even more. Look at all the tangential but interconnected threads that would be impacted by decarbonisation. What are the implications and realities of converting existing high rise apartment buildings to heat and a/c systems not run on hydrocarbons? How would governments replace all the tax revenue they currently get from gasoline? What would the world do with an endless sea of obsolete tankers, refineries, trucks, internal combustion engines? What are the practical implications of abandoning trillions of dollars of infrastructure and replacing it with totally different electrical infrastructure, in an age where even a new power transmission line is effectively fought tooth and nail by a micro-micro-slice of the population? Is it environmentally beneficial to trash thousands of square miles of equipment and facilities and replace such a catalogue with stuff that will require a whole other set of infrastructure and a whole bunch of new mines to provide the stuff to build it?
Of course, industries change all the time, and leftover detritus (and people) are not reasons to try to thwart change. Occupations/equipment/infrastructure can indeed become obsolete. But there is a huge difference between that happening organically or by government dictate, when governments clearly don’t understand interconnected consequences. Organic changes, as outlined below, are orderly and they work. A bombastic scheme like “decarbonisation” is so abstract as to be meaningless, given the global nature of energy systems.
Governments are getting hung up on analysis, the “dissection of complexity into manageable components”, yet are taking advice from the wildest system-trashing advocates society has to offer. That’s why California is running into power issues, and why every other jurisdiction will be the same if they follow the same path. Imagine governments around the world pursuing California’s agenda simultaneously, while also keeping in mind that government planning of mega-schemes like this is like a village idiot’s oversight of the space program. The immortal words of Montreal’s mayor – “The Olympic Games can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.” – immediately before the games went spectacularly over budget (yes, that’s a deficit) should be the subtitle of every decarbonisation policy document.
No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how loud they shout, no matter how many Twitter followers, no matter how many Grammys they’ve won, no matter how sincere their desire to save the world, there will be no rapid transition away from hydrocarbons. Look at any industrial or even commercial process, and try to weed “hydrocarbon” out of the pathway of its existence, and the futility will become apparent in seconds if the analysis is honest.
As always needs pointing out, in every single instance the topic comes up, this isn’t a commentary saying we should “do nothing”. It seems moronic to keep adding that disclaimer, but trust me, it’s necessary.
What we should do is make everything better that we’re able to. Reduce emissions. Recycle more and better, a lot better. Pursue efficiency with a vengeance. Implement more stringent fuel economy standards for vehicles without throwing out the old system that keeps the world functioning.
It’s possible and people are doing it, even if being drowned out. Here’s a US government initiative called the Clean Cities Coalition Network, and here’s what they do: “Clean Cities coalitions foster the nation’s economic, environmental, and energy security by working locally to advance affordable, domestic transportation fuels, energy-efficient mobility systems, and other fuel-saving technologies and practices.” Since inception, the program has achieved a cumulative impact in energy use equal to nearly 8 billion gasoline gallon equivalents. Not too shabby. And they don’t do it by ripping apart the foundations of society; they improve them. Sometimes it’s switching garbage trucks to natural gas, sometimes it’s electric buses. Sometimes it’s bigger things, like pursuing hydrogen, in ways that leverage existing infrastructure as opposed to blowing it up and starting again.
That’s how it’s going to work, regardless of what you read in the media. The endless howling of “change it all and change it now” will fade away over time, replaced by the next fear machine, because there is no one capable of deconstructing and reconstructing/replacing in our lifetimes the incredibly massive, all-encompassing Rube-Goldberg-like energy complex that keeps our world turning.