Technological Optimism

August 3, 2022

I am a technological optimist.  Always have been.  I am aware that social advances are equally, if not more, important for progress.  For instance, one of the biggest contributors to our longer lifespans has been sanitation which is more of a change in behavior than any specific technology.  Technological and social development must go hand in hand.  I am also aware that every technological advance can be used for harm as much as good.  Our growing cyber security budget is a testament to this.  Despite this, I remain supremely confident in human kind’s ability to meet its challenges. And one of the biggest challenges facing us now is the electrification of carbon-based energy such as transportation and heating in order to prevent further climate change.

Some of this optimism dates back to a high school course back in the 1970’s (yes, I am that old).  The course involved looking at all the challenges facing mankind at that time.  These included overpopulation, growing commodity shortages, pollution, social unrest, terrorism, stagflation, nuclear warfare, etc.  The Professor for that course, who was very intelligent, believed that we were living in the best of times and that things were only going to get worse.  I believe he has been proven wrong.  Many of those challenges have disappeared (overpopulation, commodity shortages) and though we may have replaced them with new ones (climate change, cyber risks) the overall trend has been very much for the better.  Think of all the advances that have been made in medical treatments, social mores, communications, product quality and poverty reduction. 

I do not know what the future will bring any more than the next person; even as it relates to climate change and electrification.  However, I do see certain trends that give me confidence:

  • Declining Costs – The costs of solar power, wind power, electric vehicles and energy storage are all declining…rapidly. 
  • Digitization – Funny thing about the electricity industry, even though electricity drives the digitization of our society, the electricity industry itself is not at the forefront in digitization.  Smart meters provide digital usage but this is not used much beyond time-of -use billing and most assets in the field do not communicate.  There are a number of reasons for this:
    • Long-term infrastructure – Electric utilities invest with horizons of 40-50 years.  Upgrading previously installed equipment for the latest versions with more digital capabilities would be prohibitively expensive.
    • No financial incentive – The regulatory model is generally about trying to keep costs down.  
    • Safety and reliability – The industry focus is on equipment that will work reliably for years and decades.  Digital technology does not have this track record.
    • Little customer demand – For most customers there is little need for more digital access to information than is currently available with monthly bills.  Some also like the only online portal with their daily usage.  For larger customers more detailed information is available though at a cost.
    • This means that there is an opportunity to benefit from digitization if the demand and need is there.  As we shift to a different electricity environment with much more integration between customers, generators and utilities, the need and the benefits from this digitization will grow.  There are companies who have developed the software to implement this digitization so how to accomplish this is largely known. 
  • New and improved technologies – There is no shortage of innovative ideas hitting the market.  None of these is a silver bullet but many will find a role to play.  Cumulatively, all these technologies will have a significant impact.  Some examples include:
    • Graphene and Perovskite are new materials being developed that could improve electrical conductivity and solar performance.
    • Air exchangers are improving in quality and declining in cost so can provide a viable future alternative to heating with carbon fuels.
    • Inverters are being equipped with additional technologies that expand the flexibility of solar power by enabling them to better integrate with the electrical grid.
    • Electric batteries are being improved with a variety of chemical bases such as with nickel composites or aluminum composites.  While these may not replace the lithium-ion batteries used for electric vehicles they may be better suited for alternative uses such as grid storage or frequency modulation.
    • Carbon storage capabilities are increasing with new and innovative methodologies being developed.

This all suggests the capability to meet the electrification and climate change challenges will be there. 

The real challenge will not be the technologies but the social constructs needed to make these work.  Can we get the market price signals right so that consumers are encouraged to make the electrification switches voluntarily?  Can we avoid imposing top-down solutions like the Green Energy Act that just drive-up costs and create resistance?  Can we recognize that there will be winners and losers, as some technologies succeed and others fail, and that we must allow for both as part of the process?  Can we recognize that this is a process and that switching an energy use from a fossil fuel to an electrical grid that is 90% carbon free may be a better investment now than getting the electrical grid 100% carbon free right away.  Can we overcome the inertia of vested interests and large bureaucracies?  Can we remove the subsidies of fossil fuels that are built into our economy and transfer these to non-carbon sources of energy?  These are the challenges that I am less optimistic about; but I still believe we can get there.

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