Thursday, July 10, 2008

Alternative energy: not as easy as it sounds?

Five and a half years ago, Pegasus Communications published my Out of Gas: A Systems Perspective on Potential Petroleum-Fuel Depletion. If you try out the downloadable model (see the column for instructions), you will discover my concern that we wouldn't start soon enough or be able to move fast enough to replace petroleum. Such delays could have a significant, perhaps massive, impact on society and on our economies.

Yesterday Forbes published America's Best Places For Alternative Energy and noted SRI's estimates that we need "[r]oughly 4.2 billion solar rooftops, 3 million wind turbines, 2,500 nuclear power plants or 200 Three Gorges Dams" to replace the amount of oil we use annually and that "no single category of renewable energy is growing anywhere near the speed it needs to bear the full brunt of displacing carbon-emitting fossil fuels anytime soon."

So my simple concept model identified a problem that's substantiated by more research at SRI (and by our daily experience, for if alternative energy sources were fully replacing petroleum, would we see overall energy price increases?).

That's part of the message of Is predicting the future really worthwhile?. My simple model didn't predict the future.

  • It did identify past patterns of action that could credibly lead to a problem.
  • It did use information that's known reasonably well (quantities of petroleum, even admitting that we don't know reserves as well as we'd like, as well as something about the dynamics of petroleum discovery and use) and apply simulation to explore what ramifications those factors might have over time.
  • It did allow one to try different scenarios to see whether one's conclusions were sensitive to assumptions. For example, does it make a fundamental difference if petroleum reserves are 25% higher than assumed? (No, it just changes the timing of the problem.)
  • It did provide a test bed for exploring strategies to see which might be more effective.

More research (in this case, in the form of the SRI study) substantiates the nature of the problem and helps us understand its magnitude and timing.

What systems are at work in your organization, your business, or your part of the world that might lead to consequences you don't want? How might you test your ideas? What can you change that might lead to better results? How might you test those ideas?

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Blogger Ralf Lippold said...

Hi Bill,

John Sterman has held a brilliant speech at MIT on a similar topic:

Best regards


10 July, 2008 14:04  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Thanks, Ralf; that's a very good pointer. Do you happen to know who is in the audience?

10 July, 2008 17:36  
Blogger Ralf Lippold said...

Hi Bill,

it must be all MIT folks (professors and students) to my knowledge.

Best to ask John;-)

See you


13 July, 2008 14:42  

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