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The Impossibility of Rapid Energy Transitions

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Understanding energy system inertia and momentum is key to judging whether a rapid transition toward any type of energy is feasible.

I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this Nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 — never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade — a saving of over 4 1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day.—Jimmy Carter

Politicians are fond of promising rapid energy transitions. Whether it is a transition from imported to domestic oil or from coal-powered electricity production to natural-gas power plants, politicians love to make grandiose claims. Unfortunately for them (and often the taxpayers), our energy systems are a bit like an aircraft carrier: they’re unbelievably expensive, they’re built to last for a very long time, they have a huge amount of inertia (meaning it takes a lot of energy to set them moving), and they have a lot of momentum once they’re set in motion. No matter how hard you try, you can’t turn something that large on a dime, or even a few thousand dimes.

Inertia and Momentum: An Overview

In physics, moving objects have two characteristics relevant to understanding the dynamics of energy systems: inertia and momentum. Inertia is the resistance of objects to efforts to change their state of motion. If you try to push a boulder, it pushes you back. Once you’ve started the boulder rolling, it develops momentum, which is defined by its mass and velocity. Momentum is said to be “conserved,” that is, once you build it up, it has to go somewhere. So a heavy object, like a football player moving at speed, has a lot of momentum that is, once he’s moving, it’s hard to change his state of motion. If you want to change his trajectory, you have only a few choices: you can intercept him, transferring (possibly painfully) some of his kinetic energy to your own body, or you can approach alongside and slowly apply pressure to gradually alter his trajectory.

But there are other kinds of momentum as well. After all, we don’t speak only of objects or people as having momentum; we speak of entire systems having momentum. Whether it’s a sports team or a presidential campaign, everybody relishes having the “big mo,” because it makes them harder to stop or deflect.

Technological Momentum

The engineers, designers, regulators, operators, and all of the other skilled people needed for the new energy industry are specialists who have to be trained first.

One kind of momentum is technological momentum. When a technology is deployed, its impacts reach far beyond itself. Consider the incandescent bulb, a current objet d’hatred of many environmentalists and energy-efficiency advocates. The incandescent light bulb, invented by Thomas Alva Edison, which came to be the symbol of inspiration, has been developed into hundreds, if not thousands, of forms. Today, a visit to a lighting store reveals a stunning array of choices. There are standard-shaped bulbs, oblong bulbs, flickering flame–shaped bulbs, colored globe–shaped bulbs, outdoor spotlights and floodlights, and more. It is quite easy, with all that choice, to change a light bulb.

But the momentum of incandescent lighting doesn’t stop there. All of those specialized bulbs led to the building of specialized light fixtures, from the desk lamp you study by, to the ugly but beloved hand-painted Chinese Foo Dog lamp you inherited from your grandmother, to the ceiling fixture in your closet, to the light in your oven or refrigerator, and to the light that the dentist points at you. It’s easy to change a light bulb, sure, but it’s harder to change the bulb and its fixture.

And there’s more to the story, because not only are the devices that house incandescent bulbs shaped to their underlying characteristics, rooms and entire buildings have also been designed in accordance with how incandescent lighting reflects off walls and windows. As lighting expert Howard M. Brandston points out:

Generally, there are no bad light sources, only bad applications. There are some very laudable characteristics of the CFL [compact fluorescent light bulb], yet the selection of any light source remains inseparable from the luminaire that houses it, along with the space in which both are installed and lighting requirements that need to be satisfied. In the pursuit of a more useful lumens-per-watt metric, one must match the luminaire to the space being illuminated. The lamp, the fixture, and the room: all three must work in concert and for the true benefits of end-users. If the CFL should be used for lighting a particular space, or an object within that space, the fixture must be designed to work with that lamp, and that fixture with the room. It is a symbiotic relationship. A CFL cannot be simply installed in an incandescent fixture and then expected to produce a visual appearance that is more than washed out, foggy, and dingy. The whole fixture must be replaced — light source and luminaire — and this is never an inexpensive proposition.

And Brandston knows a thing or two about lighting, being the man who illuminated the Statue of Liberty.

Labor-Pool Momentum

When a technology is deployed, its impacts reach far beyond itself.

Another type of momentum we have to think about when planning for changes in our energy systems is labor-pool momentum. It’s one thing to say that we’re going to shift 30 percent of our electricity supply from, say, coal to nuclear power in 20 years. But it’s another thing to have a supply of trained talent that would let you carry out this promise. That’s because the engineers, designers, regulators, operators, and all of the other skilled people needed for the new energy industry are specialists who have to be trained first (or retrained, if they’re the ones being laid off in some related industry), and education, like any other complicated endeavor, takes time. And not only do our prospective new energy workers have to be trained, they have to be trained in the right sequence. One needs the designers, and perhaps the regulators, before the builders and operators, and each cohort of workers in training has to know there is work waiting beyond graduation. In some cases, colleges and universities might have to change their training programs, adding another layer of difficulty, given the prevalence of tenure in academia.

Economic Momentum

By far the biggest type of momentum that comes into play when it comes to changing our energy systems is economic momentum. The major components of our energy systems, such as fuel production and refining and electrical generation and distribution, are costly installations that have lengthy life spans and that have to operate for long periods of time before the costs of development have been recovered. When investors put up their money to build, say, a nuclear power plant, they expect to earn that money back over the planned life of the plant, which is typically between 40 and 60 years. Some coal power plants in the United States have operated for more than 70 years! The oldest continuously operated commercial hydroelectric plant in the United States is on New York’s Hudson River, and it went into commercial service in 1898.

As Vaclav Smil points out, “All the forecasts, plans, and anticipations cited above have failed so miserably because their authors and promoters thought the transitions they hoped to implement would proceed unlike all previous energy transitions, and that their progress could be accelerated in an unprecedented manner.”

When you hear people speaking of making a rapid transition toward any type of energy, whether it’s a switch from coal to nuclear power, or a switch from gasoline-powered cars to electric cars, or even a switch from an incandescent to a fluorescent light, understanding energy system inertia and momentum can help you decide whether their plans are feasible.

Editor’s note: This is part five in a series of essays on energy system dynamics and energy policy.

Kenneth P. Green is a senior fellow with Canada’s Fraser Institute and a former resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is derived from the introduction of Abundant Energy: The Fuel of Human Flourishing, a supplementary text for college students, published by AEI Press.

FURTHER READING: Green also writes “Why Growth Is the Environment’s Best Friend,” “Energy Is Everywhere,” “Homo Sapiens or Homo Igniferens?” and “Energy Abundance vs. the Poverty of Energy Literacy” as part of this series. Mark J. Perry discusses how “Texas Turns Off Lights on Federal Light Bulb Ban” and, with Thomas A. Hemphill, explains “How Obama’s Energy Policy Will Kill Jobs.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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