Some years ago, I had an epiphany: Popular Mechanics magazine was full of crap. Popular Science also.
Oh sure, they were infinitely interesting, for the curious of mind. These publications cover the wildest assortment of scientific developments imaginable. The problem was, particularly for fans of new technology and progress, that the publishers tended to slap on the cover a steady stream of blindingly cool new stuff that “might just” revolutionize one thing or another. I’d get giddy at the prospects. And then those cool things were never heard of again.
Here’s a handful:
A new type of plane was “under development” that would fly 10 or 15 meters above the ocean, and could take off/land in water. It was going to be revolutionary; it did not require the high altitude complexity of regular planes, did not need airports, etc. “The Russians” were allegedly developing them.
Another was superconductivity, whereby under certain conditions electricity could flow without resistance through copper wires, which would also revolutionize everything, in a different way. Smaller wires would be able to handle vastly more current without power loss, and would have been a very big deal. For a few years, news stories touted the latest breakthrough in the temperature at which superconductivity had been achieved.
Another was “fully active suspensions” being developed by Lotus Engineering, the same company that developed FI cars and some of the most advanced auto technology. Active suspension replaced spring/shock absorbers with a hydraulic system that read the road just ahead of each wheel with sensors and moved each wheel the exact amount required to deal with what was coming next.
It may sound trivial but the potential was huge – cars might have been able to run on near-solid tires which would have dramatically increased fuel efficiency, packaging would have been improved, cars could have been lighter, etc. Videos circulated showing Lotus engineers sitting in the passenger seat typing away on laptops as test cars did weird things like leaning into turns, as opposed to the normal body roll.
Each of these ideas – and thousands like them – reached a certain critical mass of credibility, enough for a demo to work (in a lab or test track, under strict and limited conditions). Enthusiast publications pick up the story, and, if interesting enough, mainstream media does as well.
Each of these ideas is now dead as a post. Or dead insofar as there is any hope of anything revolutionary coming out of them any time soon.
That’s the world of R&D. We all want to see stuff like this succeed. Very little does, not as massive breakthroughs anyway (and that’s what we’re looking for, now that we’ve subscribed to Net Zero 2050).
I’ve looked forward to breakthroughs in energy ever since I started in the business. The first solar panels were amazing; I remember being utterly captivated in Costco at a $400 model that would hardly charge a cell phone, the first I’d seen.
I’m still hopeful, but the old enthusiasm I’d get from the “oh boy oh boy oh boy look at that” phase is now nothing but a puddle of dubiousness. Jaded is another word that works fairly well, particularly after throwing a few dollars at “next big thing” investments and penny stocks that end up as eternal little corpses in my portfolio statements that won’t go away when a company goes belly up. Trust me on that one.
The doubt comes from years of experience watching great new ideas crash on the rocks. It still happens, as with most people probably. We get excited about new ideas/tech that will advance energy. Sometimes I write about them.
Each time I write about something new and promising, I almost without fail get a thoughtful note from someone that knows more about the topic than I do, saying “Did you think about [this] or [that]? Because [this] or [that] renders the whole idea far more challenging than it appears.”
Usually these people are right. Their point doesn’t necessarily invalidate the new idea, but often points out a secondary consequence or limitation that isn’t readily apparent. The energy transition is rife with such events; there are endless second and third and fourth order consequences of a move in any new direction that are often hard to see without talking to pretty much everyone, and even harder to see when blinded by enthusiasm.
Our current energy transition is a shambles because leaders got dazzled by the shiny lights – endless, free, clean electricity from the wind and sun! What could be better? Get on it! Twenty years and trillions later, it’s really hard to say, hmm, well that didn’t work…
There are of course exceptions; that’s how progress happens. Elon Musk figured out a way to make thousands of lithium ion batteries work as a car’s power source, all while a cluster of auto establishment types chuckled and said It’ll never work. It was pretty sweet to see a mocked-upstart teach a lesson to a smug oligarchy of entrenched industrialists that thought they had it all figured out.
Even though Tesla’s cars are/were revolutionary to the existing way of doing things, they are a perfect example of the sort of challenge that stymies most innovation breakthroughs. The fact that Musk showed that lithium-ion batteries could power a modern full sized car over great distances on a single charge did not in itself change the world.
Tesla’s success has taken a long time (their first production was in 2008), it took a slightly-crazy multi-billionaire willing to invest his own billions to get it off the ground, and it has benefitted incalculably from government support (Tesla has only recently attained profitability and it’s not the cars that are profitable, it is the sale of carbon/emission credits that has put them in the black (and with that I enter my foxhole, here comes the shelling)). Then there’s also the ultimate problem: if Tesla’s cars (and the competing EVs it inspired) take off the way proponents hope, there simply aren’t enough minerals/metals in the world’s known reserves to allow companies to construct them.
The problem is compounded by the perceived need for monumental change, fast (as the IPCC put it in one report: “Pathways limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C…would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems … unprecedented in terms of scale…”).
Net-zero 2050, the arbitrary mantra adopted by bureaucrats and activists everywhere, demands total global transformation. Even nuclear takes far too long, according to activists, and that is the only realistic option to achieve the level of power the world needs, if zero-emission is the goal. And nuclear has other issues, largest of which is that Greenpeace and co hate it, and if they hate something, look out.
Because of the panic, it takes Big Things to get people excited, like cold fusion technology, or a really big battery breakthrough, or a green hydrogen economy, etc. Things of that magnitude are in the public’s mindset because they are going to be needed to get anywhere near governments’ emissions reduction pledges. Those pledges also either subtly or not include strategies to decimate the hydrocarbon industry, which as of now is kind of important (that’s what you call understatement) and the only way this all works is for a mega-breakthrough.
And there’s the rub. Mega-breakthroughs can sound mega-appealing, and make the optimist in us get excited at the possibilities. But the possibilities tend to overwhelm the part of the brain that says “How hard is this all going to be?”
That’s not a bad thing; if people knew how hard most successful innovation is, they probably wouldn’t even start. That’s how new ideas develop.
But developing a new idea that requires us to rewire the world is something else entirely.
Take nuclear fusion as an example, whereby massive quantities of energy are released through the fusing of atoms, with none of the drawbacks of current nuclear fission technology (gross oversimplification I know; move along). The tantalizing dream is of fusion power is that it could be the holy grail of the energy transition. The BBC breathlessly headlines, “Major Breakthrough on Nuclear Fusion Energy” in February of this year, and can’t even finish the article without putting a bullet in the head of this ‘breakthrough’: “No materials exist that can withstand direct contact with such heat.” And then a few paragraphs down: “here’s huge uncertainty about when fusion power will be ready for commercialisation. One estimate suggests maybe 20 years. Then fusion would need to scale up, which would mean a delay of perhaps another few decades.” And that’s after admitting that this particular lab has been researching this fusion approach “for nearly 40 years.”
And what if they did crack this fusion nut? Does anyone understand what it would mean? Where would you put “power plants”? What would they look like? How would you integrate them? What other ancillary infrastructure would be required? What would happen to 25 year power purchase agreements that govern massive amounts of existing infrastructure?
And most importantly, the biggest, most challenging factor that can’t be quantified in advance: What would the battle for survival look like for all the actors – wind/solar/hydrocarbon/you name it – that had entered into contracts in good faith that were now worthless? Would bureaucrats put wheels in the spokes of fusion implementation to protect the [insert any name] plant in their jurisdiction?
Why yes, yes they would. I can tell you that with [high confidence], as the IPCC likes to say.
Obviously, we won’t quit trying to knock it out of the park with new technology, nor should we. As one of my genius friends said, who is actively in the pursuit of new technology breakthroughs, “The big prize is probably in someone’s garage somewhere.” Metaphorically speaking that is probably most accurate, with someone’s garage being some sort of lab somewhere. But history tells us that true breakthroughs in something like the field of energy are not trivial, not easy, and not very frequent.
Recent studies indicate some people have not bought this book yet. That might explain a lot of the chaos. Pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. It’s not too late. Thanks for the support. And hang in there Ukraine! The world is cheering you on.