Monday, March 28, 2011

Black Swans, the Precautionary Principle, and Power

© 2011 Joshua Stark

A quick note:  I'd like to read what you all think about nuclear power in light of the events in Japan.  It is a horrible, sad, tragic series of calamities befalling the country right now, and I won't tolerate any unkind comments.  For us, however, the debate should begin.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of "black swan" thinking, in general.  However, outliers should be examined in the context of the level of catastrophe that may one day occur.  For nuclear and large hydropower, the potential for catastrophe is large at generation.  For petroleum and coal-based generation, the potential for catastrophe is large at extraction (see the Gulf).  Really, the only generation types that would appear to limit the potential for catastrophe is very small hydropower, wind, and solar power.  

What do you all think?


Swamp Thing said...

I think we have waited too long to pay the bill, and are in a desperate game of catch-up right now.

I think the best we can do is focus more on BIG nuclear and BIG hydro until the more appropriate, sustainable, and low risk energies become widely (and commercially) available. To do so will assume huge risks and continued losses of natural resources. It will also require higher energy costs or taxes to consumers to continue to fund the next wave of power sources. This will be insanely unpopular, but absolutely necessary.

To not do so will require either an immediate, Nationwide 50% reduction in power consumption so we can stop burning coal and oil for power (not going to happen); or alternately, that we keep burning fossil fuel until all the (extractable) oil is gone (around 2150) and all the coal is gone (around 2400). And just hope that there is still an earth worth saving for human use.

Remember that the world's economy is built not just upon the availability of oil and coal, but the availability of CHEAP oil and coal. We are talking about seismic shifts in human society that must occur - and will occur at some point, whether we like it or not.

Josh said...

Swamp Thing, though I understand and definitely appreciate your thoughts on our choices, I don't completely agree with them.

As petroleum prices rise steadily due to the increased difficulties with acquiring them, alternative energy will become more available. With many of those technologies (solar, especially, but also wind), new economic thresholds will probably be breached, creating economies of scale, well before any market crises occur. However, the threat of political crises (including terrorism) looms very large, as do the threats associated with "black swans", such as a 9.0 earthquake + tsunami.

A distributed energy system + energy efficiencies, based on generation that is not prone to catastrophic failure from black swans, is a much more sustainable and stable energy source. It's also possible on a large scale in much of the United States.

Relying on big, centralized systems raises our risks of catastrophe while retarding our ability to shift to safer generation, because big systems require heavy subsidies, government insurance, and distribution systems that artificially prop up centralized power distribution.

Anonymous said...

I think we need to learn from Japan and come up with ways to protect backup generators from failing in extreme situations. There are solutions that could have prevented the situations in Japan...but nobody thought of them. We learn from every natural disaster.

Josh said...

Geomusicon, I completely agree that we do learn from these catastrophes.

But, I mentioned this within the context of black swans - the catastrophe we learn from. My point is that we need to back away from powers that, upon experiencing a black swan, cause catastrophies, themselves.

I'm sure the earthquake and tsunami broke open some solar arrays, too, and toppled windmills. However, there is no threat of massive and widespread pollution of the environment from them, much less the potential to kill many, many people.

somchai said...

Swamp Things and Geomusician together lit on a where I think our partial solution lies.

A 50% reduction in usage per capita is what we can learn from Japan. Not that nukes are dangerous, we knew that.

We could start our smart energy use by conserving half. It would take very little change in technology or lifestyle.

Bob J said...

If my understanding of Black Swan events is similar to yours, then I think Black Swan thinking is currently in progress regarding the events in Japan.

I certainly don't want to delve into Chaos Theory, Gaming Theory, Bell Curves or Normal Distributions, but one wonders if humans are capable of non-Black Swan thinking. I think politics and money will drive the post-event analysis rather than a rational defense of alternatives.

Based on your response to the first commenter, I think I am in agreement with your take. It's a debate we should be having now...especially now.