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On energy: Focus on the scalable, not the possible

There’s a lesson the would-be architects of our clean, renewable-energy future can take from the international response to the deadly Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti: it’s not the possible that matters … it’s the scalable.

The evidence remains everywhere to be seen in quake-torn cities like Port-au-Prince, where tens of thousands still live beneath makeshift tents made of tablecloths, tarps or plastic sheeting. Why such poor shelters when it’s certainly possible to deploy a mass shipment of proper tents out for every homeless person in the nation? Because — in the real-world realm constrained by politics, economics and sheer will, among other factors — such a deployment hasn’t been scalable.

Our clean-energy future is constrained in the same way, as we can already see from a recent history speckled with less-than-compelling climate accords, climate fund raids, carbon trading irregularities and missed transport targets. The key to reducing the incidence of such missteps? A clearer focus on the scalable, not the possible.

For example, while it’s possible to build and sell hundreds of millions more cars for the rising middle classes of China and India, it’s not scalable.

“There is just no question, the current transportation model does not scale,” says John Sterman, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It isn’t going to happen — because everybody wants to be as rich as we are, and we all want to be richer than we are today.”

The same holds true for our response to climate change. While a fair segment of society continues to resist taking action now in hopes of the emergence of an ideal technological solution later, such a “magic bullet” might be possible but not scalable in the time frame we need. Even the Wedge Game climate stabilisation strategy that’s based on existing technologies falls prey to that shortcoming, as New York University physicist Marty Hoffert has noted:

“This might be the case in the sense that humanity had the know-how to build nuclear weapons in the late 30s or go to the Moon in the 50s. But it took the Manhattan and Apollo programs to make it so.”

The Wales-based wind-energy firm West Coast Energy this week offered a similar message to the Welsh Assembly following the government’s new policy statement on “A Low-Carbon Revolution.”

The statement falls short of what’s needed because greater weight “should be given to commercially viable, available and deliverable forms of generation, rather than more costly, immature or high risk solutions,” said Richard Fearnall, West Coast Energy’s development manager. The government, he said, “needs to be realistic not idealistic, producing as much renewable energy as they can from each alternative technology.”

“There is too much emphasis on untried, untested and potentially unrealistic technologies.”

In an ideal world, such technologies would certainly be nice. In the real world, though, we need to remember to make our plans based on what we have, and what we can scale in the timeframe needed.


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