Quickie Post — Reading the Energy Tea Leaves/Media One More Time

100 Islands 2012 (1)

In 100 Islands National Park, Philippines, 2012

One of the interesting things to me about reading tech. media is how often the journalists get it wrong — usually on the pessimistic side of the scale.  And it’s easy in tech to point a finger at the journalist and declare “well, they just didn’t know enough about the tech to have an intelligent opinion.  If they only had XXX engineering degree, they’d have known whether YYY innovation was really going to happen or not.

I’m not one to completely knock having an engineering degree, having more than a couple myself!  But it’s important to remember that the degree provides the scaffolding for any analysis — a set of constituent knowledge parts that still have to be combined into that holistic narrative the makes sense of a potential change.  And that depends on the author’s v-Meme, which will then inform their endorsement or criticism.  Whether they’re promoting a solar satellite in the sky, or tiles on a rooftop spread by neighbors at roof-changing parties, Conway’s Law informs the implementation of the actual design by the design group’s v-Meme.    But the journalist’s background will tell you whether they like or dislike a particular technology, as well as inform on their ability to understand, or even comprehend how a given piece of technology will evolve.

For the most part, tech writing forever has been pretty utopian/absolutistic in nature, either positive or negative (think everything from Star Trek to Brave New World.) And not much nuance — at least until Philip K. Dick came along (the ur-author of the story the movie Bladerunner is based on) or maybe William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  But reporting on tech is still hugely dependent on the writer’s v-Memes — and that’s particularly noticeable in how the writer conveys the sense of innovation, change, and metacognition.

Energy issues are obviously one of the huge areas of tech-speculation, with any new announcement screaming out the v-Memes of the author.  If it’s all about how something large and centralized is going to save the day, I’d be willing to bet a beer that the journalist is an authoritarian/legalist.  Likewise if they say something like ‘large scale energy storage/base load is the thing that will kill renewables.’  Or if any introduced technology is immediately condemned because it can’t instantly replace all the current energy pipelines that run modern society.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to read a story from a naysayer that is starting to understand that change processes are key for technology maturation.  This article, from the online website Treehugger, about Tesla storage substations as replacement for small scale natural gas power generation, is a good example — and definitely worth a read.  The author is talking about the Duck, which is a tech term for the problem with renewables, that peak power generation demands are often right when the sun is going down and wind is dying, and people are turning on their A/C and cooking dinner.  You need some crossover support to make it all happen.

This TreeHugger has been forced to eat a lot of words recently after complaining how net zero building and rooftop solar was going to create huge problems; I noted recently that Tesla’s power wall “is a real game-changer, that erases so many of the problems I have had with rooftop solar and its dependence on the grid, the whole duck curve thing, just gone.”

Whether or not it turns out to be completely true, that Tesla concentrated storage will work to fix this problem completely or not, as all things in the future, has variability and probability attached.  That’s the truly evolutionary thing to say.

A view of long history can help.  One of my more lighthearted hobbies is reading railroad and model railroad magazines.  My railroad of fandom, The Milwaukee Road, ran through our backyard and through the headwaters of the St. Joe River, over St. Paul Pass.  The Milwaukee Road was an innovator, and ran electrified routes over the Rockies and Cascades, starting at Harlowton, MT, over to Avery, ID and on to Seattle.  You can ride part of the Route of the Hiawatha now on your bike, with a nice shuttle if you’re so inclined.  It’s lovely.   See below.

You actually get to ride on the abandoned railway and across the trestles — it’s that pretty!

But what was really interesting about the Milwaukee Road was that they timed their trains to provide peaking power back into the grid at the Duck.  In order to slow down, they would use regenerative braking, and feed power back into the system about the time everyone was frying up their evening hamburgers.  Talk about empathetic synergy.

So answers are often out there.  And often, as with all progress, unexpected and nonlinear in nature.  Just like creativity itself, if you need to get all hopey-changey-complex systemy- self similarity on yourself!  That particular solution was used, depending on how you count the years, almost 100 years ago.

If there’s a takeaway, it’s this.  Raise an eyebrow on anyone either unilaterally praising, or condemning any new technology.  The more things change, the more things change.  And like Yogi Berra said, especially about the truly large issues like Global Warming — “it ain’t over ’till it’s over.”

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