The Devil is in the Assumptions

Google just came up with a report on the potential of clean energy technology, which has received some fairly rapturous coverage in the environmental press. The key insights of the report, as follows:

  • Energy innovation pays off big: We compared “business as usual” (BAU) to scenarios with breakthroughs in clean energy technologies. On top of those, we layered a series of possible clean energy policies (more details in the report). We found that by 2030, when compared to BAU, breakthroughs could help the U.S.:
    • Grow GDP by over $155 billion/year ($244 billion in our Clean Policy scenario)
    • Create over 1.1 million new full-time jobs/year (1.9 million with Clean Policy)
    • Reduce household energy costs by over $942/year ($995 with Clean Policy)
    • Reduce U.S. oil consumption by over 1.1 billion barrels/year
    • Reduce U.S. total carbon emissions by 13% in 2030 (21% with Clean Policy)
  • Speed matters and delay is costly: Our model found a mere five year delay (2010-2015) in accelerating technology innovation led to $2.3-3.2 trillion in unrealized GDP, an aggregate 1.2-1.4 million net unrealized jobs and 8-28 more gigatons of potential GHG emissions by 2050.
  • Policy and innovation can enhance each other: Combining clean energy policies with technological breakthroughs increased the economic, security and pollution benefits for either innovation or policy alone. Take GHG emissions: the model showed that combining policy and innovation led to 59% GHG reductions by 2050 (vs. 2005 levels), while maintaining economic growth.

Well, hot damn. That's some good outcomes. All we need is a carbon price, some deployment policy, and a couple of scientific breakthroughs, and we can save the world and get rich at the same time.

Well, I was feeling cynical, so I decided to look at exactly what breakthroughs we might need. Google was nice enough to publish it's data in Appendix C, so please turn down there, and look at solar PV. Google has the 2010 overnight capital costs--what it takes to build an electrical plant, at $4000/kW. The breakthrough scenario has that solar PV at $1000/kW in 2020. Batteries are another core technology for electric vehicles and grid-scale storage. Right now, Google has batteries at $500/kWh, and in their good scenario, $100 kWh in 2020. Other clean energy technologies see slightly smaller, but similar three or fourfold decrease in price in just a decade, along with major increases in reliability and lifespan.

Now, I won't go out and say that those kinds of cost reductions are impossible, since prediction, especially about science and technology, is very hard. But in the case of solar PV, it would be about an improvement an order of magnitude better than what was seen in the past decade. In many cases it appears that we may be approaching limits imposed by the cost of raw materials: silicon, cobalt, lithium, steel, and rare earth metals. Without a better idea of what scientific breakthroughs are needed, or how those breakthroughs could be achieved, Google's report should be taken with a large grain of salt.


Between Innovation and Evolution

Breakthrough has my second blog, on innovation and technological evolution. Is evolutionary economics worthwhile, or just more psuedo-scientific bunk?

Policy-makers seeking to ignite the engines of economic growth are turning to a new theory of "innovation economics," which focuses on technological evolution and its supporting institutions. However, the axiom that "innovation drives economic growth" derives mostly from the observation that conventional explanations of growth based on capital and population fail to explain differences in economic outcomes, not incontrovertible evidence. Failure and innovation seem to run hand-in-hand. Fantastically innovative technologies, from the SAGE air defense network, to the Concorde SST, and EV-1 electric car became technological turkeys when they failed in the market. Entrepreneurs have a failure rate approaching 80%. Neoclassic economics--the doctrine that innovation economics seeks to replace--grew up crippled because it borrowed from an incomplete model of equilibrium physics, using the First Law of Thermodynamics, but not the Second Law. Similarly, without a better understanding of the forces behind technological evolution, innovation economics will develop as a fundamentally flawed theory. There is a difference between faster evolution, and real improvements in quality of life. Read the rest.


Breakthrough Together, or Break Apart

I'm spending the summer with the goods folks at the Breakthrough Institute, and as part of that, they have us blogging. Entry #1 has arrived.

No country remains great forever; Britain, Spain, Rome, all declined and fell. For many, the 20th century was the American Golden Age, and all that's left is its inevitable decline. Washington DC is a city defined by gridlock and partisan paralysis. Corporations make record breaking profits while unemployment remains stubbornly high. And above all looms the rising power of China, with its billion citizens, rocket-like growth, and the expanding influence of the "Beijing Consensus" of authoritarian capitalism, all of which threatens to surpass America as the leading world power within a few decades. But a decline in American standards of living and international prestige can still be averted. Lessons from international development can, and should, be applied at home.

Continue reading "Breakthrough Together, or Break Apart" »


Our Bruce, Who Art in Heaven

I have a google alert out for Bruce Sterling. This may be spam for a free ebook of Schismatrix, or it may be the Internet, achieving sentience.

Submitted by Lemesofstog on Fri, 06/10/2011 - 01:57
A document thus attested can no more be forged or repudiated than a photograph-not so easily, for while the period of half a lifetime effects great changes in the physiognomy. During her Sundays en ville she had Schismatrix the world and judged it, guiltiness will speak, Though tongues were out of use. Assemanni, there is not an old Indian, male or female, in Schiismatrix England or Canada who does not retain stories and songs of the greatest interest. Yes, ant please your honour. The Bruce thing was to be beforehand with Barbara and Bevan and Elise and Toby and Markham and the servants; to tell Fanny himself before any of them could get in first. Pray you, it swept down to a slum; It saw within a grimy house a light that dimly shone; It peered in through a window-pane and lo. The courtiers turned up their thin Bruce at the coarse diversion, the parents had arranged the match among themselves; and the young by had never met until just before the time appointed for the marriage, when the bridegroom came up to Paris with his title-deeds, and settlements, and money.
That morning at sunrise great confusion prevailed in the sand-covered courtyard of Our Lady of Dolours, at the door of which a couple of priests were mounting guard. I was furious with disappointment. A man might be of any religion or of no religion at all, and yet I fail to see how he could watch, unmoved, the uplifted faces of these people as they clumped over the cobbles of the Holy City, praying as they went. Halcyon summer twilights and the purple chill of morning alike left him unresponsive. Puis il se hissa aux reliefs de la muraille, et, bien que Schismtrix lucarne fut etroite, il put y passer. He also payee much for it. Between the river and the eastern wall of the canyon there is an immense talus of broken rocks. Even then the engagement was by over, for the Chinese rallied in an intrenched camp one mile in the rear of the forts, and, rendered confident by their numbers, they resolved to make a fresh stand, and hurled defiance at the foreigners.
Porter- "I call Sterliing Richard," said Alice, "because my brother does. John Rabbits palace under ground Was once by Goody Weasel found. Unfortunately, however, Mrs. Otherwise he is, as we all know, a man of excellent parts. The Foolish Weaver 10. We Schismtrix fain return to it again and Sterling, A cat that Sterling the hypocrite, A saintly mouser, sleek and fat, An arbiter of keenest wit.
.as I told you just now, to tie up his legs, Nor can it do so if not being; "O my soul, but respects its ground plan, Z-80 and 8080 assembly language programming (Hayden computer programming series) 871 filled up the whole of his time. Gesprächen mit Todten oder göttlichen Wesen gelüstet, we must admit that she has since, their methods of thought, Cliff Notes on Faulkner's As I Lay Dying by William). ROBERTS & James L. (FAULKNER 289 for almost before he could speak distinctly he is reported to have caught up certain lines of "Richard III." y que las cosas de guerra, Three Doctors, yet he felt that, and trenched on those of the king. Maurice Blanchot (Routledge Critical Thinkers) 267 She gave way a little at the last moment, ich müßte mit all den Strebungen und Eitelkeiten überhaupt nichts mehr zu tun haben und mein Schulmeistertum, and then sailing over the sea Westwards they came in the thirtieth month to that place from whence the king of the Egyptians had sent out the Phenicians of whom I spoke before, and I but capable to please with childish prattle; Moment of Vengeance and Other Stories by Elmore Leonard 937 je mehr fühle ich, let them be either tawny or white, ranging about, I was!' cried Mrs MacStinger. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought 355 With what gracious tact the orchestra gives time to Susanna to set down the words of her mistress! et, Were they Letty and Alfred--this tousled, www.cstvnakhon.com

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In Defense of the NSF

In my fine tradition of letting We Alone know about everything I'm doing last, if at all, last week I had another article published by the good folks at Science Progress. Biff-1, Conservatives-0.

A new report produced by the staff of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) rails against the National Science Foundation while illustrating a profound misunderstanding of how science is done and how the agency operates. “Under the Microscope” claims $1.2 billion in waste, fraud, duplication, and mismanagement, and $1.7 billion in unspent funds. Sen. Coburn’s review, however, is unscientific and deeply misleading, ignoring 95 percent of the foundation’s activity to pick on “silly grants” and the moral failings of its managers. Read the rest...