Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Green and sustainable in a political context – Part 7: arguing the case for long term benefits

Posted in social networking and business by Timothy Platt on November 14, 2010

Green and sustainability can be and often are political footballs. This, I add is a politically neutral statement as political football is a game that most anyone or any group can play, and many, many do.

One of the most useful tactics in playing this game is to conflate related but separable issues, attack one and use that as a means for dismissing the other without actually examining it. Is global warming real and if so which climate change model is a best fit? This is an important set of questions and a great deal hangs in the balance depending on which model is taken as a realistic basis for policy, law and action, and of course which turns out to be true. Many people simply state that global warming is real and that the scientific evidence is by now overwhelming. Many still prefer to be deniers of this and of the validity or relevance of any scientific finds used to support climate change models. Global warming is also one of the most popular bait-and-switch tools for attacking one issue and simultaneously denying a second. It is the conjoined twin of choice for simply ignoring and by fait denying any of a wide range of other issues that are with a wave of the hand simply declared to only be relevant if global warming is to be believed.

I want to start this posting by setting the issues of global warming aside, as important as they are. I want to focus on a couple of issues instead, that are often linked to that and that tend to be accepted or dismissed accordingly – but usually without separate analysis as to merit.

Solar energy is an alternative energy source whose time has come – and gone and come and gone and come and it looks like it just went away again, at least in the United States. It still doggedly persists and never quite completely goes away but it never quite takes off either.

A quick and facile take on solar energy as an alternative to coal, petroleum and other large carbon footprint options simply says that when solar power arrays are in use they generate electrical power without generating carbon dioxide or other carbon-based waste. If you favor the accuracy and relevance of global warming concerns you support development of solar energy alternatives in lock step to that. If you dismiss global warming as a hoax, you dismiss this too. Then even if solar energy is not a hoax per se, it is at best simply a waste of time and effort. After all, right now the more mature petrochemical and coal industries can produce a unit of electrical power more cheaply than any current active or passive solar arrays could, and certainly if you take the full costs into account for the full production life cycles that go into generating that electrical energy.

My goal in this posting is not to argue the case pro or con for the cost-effectiveness of today’s current state of the art for solar energy, as opposed to the current price of that same unit of energy from fossil fuels. That has and will continue to change, and with the relative numbers going up and down for both. I instead, want to argue the case for two more persistent and interrelated points – and here I mean points that really do inseparably interconnect:

• The need for taking a full lifecycle view of energy and other alternatives, and in evaluating their cost-effectiveness as well as their Greenness and sustainability. Very often even when production cycles are considered, these analyses are selective and do not cover the full cycle from production of all relevant equipment that would only be used to produce that unit of energy, through to managing waste byproducts and impact costs. Entire process cycles need to be addressed, and with an eye to those components that would have to be developed and maintained, if and only if a specific energy sourcing option were used. For oil as an example, that would not mean the costs of every oil well and its related equipment but it would have to cover the cost of the drilling and oil extraction that would be required if we simply kept using oil for energy – the costs coming from the extra rigs that would be needed for oil that would be used in this way.
• The need to look not at short term costs and benefits, but rather at long term trends that transcend the short term fluctuations of the here and now marketplace. In this, think in terms of startup costs and the need to accept them as an unavoidable but affordable initial barrier to longer term profitability. If in the longer term consideration a new technology can become more effective and cost-efficient than an older one and you amortize the higher initial startup costs over a longer period than quarter due, a newer technology may be the only realistic option and even just from a simple dollars and cents cost/benefits analysis.

I happen to think global warming is a pressing and important issue, and that the decisions we make now will have long term impact, and on a scale of long term that we cannot even begin to envision. That does not matter here; it is a non sequitur. Solar energy as a sourcing strategy can stand or perhaps fail on its own merits, just as any new and emerging technology can, and without having to step back to take recourse in a “big picture” justification. Yes, the technology is more expensive now, but transistors were initially less capable and more expensive than vacuum tubes. They took off because they were smaller and used less power to run, so they made new user options (e.g. portable, battery powered radios, etc) possible. And very quickly they became a lot less expensive to produce too, and certainly as single stand-alone transistors gave way to integrated circuits.

When an early stage new technology is supported and developed, it becomes both more cost-effective per unit and those units become more technologically advanced and capable. New technologies open doors to new and previously unimagined applications and uses too.

Now add in climate change but in a focused and cost/benefits-related way. If you want to burn coal but not see all the marble, and your lungs in your communities start to singe from the aerosolized sulfuric acid generated by natural, automatic processes in the air from the smoke exhaust generated, you have to either use very low sulfur content coal, setting aside the high sulfur alternatives, or you have to develop and add in scrubbers in the smokestacks to remove that sulfur, or you have to clean it out of the coal before you burn it – you have to do that somewhere in the energy production cycle of the type I cited in my first bullet point above. Forget the perhaps fuzzy and easily misunderstood big picture and look at this in terms of what steps you would have to add to or augment in that production cycle, and the costs and benefits that these steps would bring.

If we burn high sulfur coal in electrical power plants we incur new and significant costs that have to be accounted for in any tally of the actual overall costs we face, here in this quarter from producing that unit of energy. If we simply take an approach that this technology only makes sense in some larger context and if some larger and more open ended concern is agreed to, we fail to make the detailed stand-alone cost and benefits analyses needed to really test out the viability of newer options like solar energy. And they become easy targets to simply dismiss out of hand.

This posting is my seventh so far in a series on Green and sustainable in a political context and you can find earlier installments listed at Social Networking and Business as postings 85 through 89 and 92. My next posting in this series is going to flip this posting around and look at the big picture concern of global warming per se. My goal there is to propose an alternative way to view it and to approach dealing with it, and as a matter of policy, law and action.

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