Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 4 February 2013

New Fangled Rubbish?

When Greens aren't being GM crop trashing neo-Luddites or nay-saying NIMBYs, we're usually trying to push some new fangled gadgets on the public.

This is never easy.

Take, for example, wind turbines.

Here we have all the usual reaction from people who don't want change and vested interests prepared to fund dirty tricks.

However a more serious problem is that we're pushing a technology that appears to do less but cost more.

Actually this is a hugely disputed area and, leaving aside the rather important fact that most of the costs of coal and oil, especially Climate Change, aren't factored into the bill, much of the extra cost of wind is a 'fiddle factor' to cope with fluctuating demand. This, though, is not just a problem of wind. War can double the price of oil and various factors, including algae, can knock out nukes unexpectedly, but only poor old wind has to pay extra for this problem.

However this is not a just problem for Renewable energy. The truth is, most new technologies are initially no better than the old they replace.

Take, for example, the machine gun.

You'll read in some books that the French were complete tosseurs to loose their war with Germany in 1870 as they'd secretly invented the machine gun, and if they'd only used it properly they'd have sent the spikey headed Prussians packing.

Well, no.

The French lost the war through a variety of reasons. They were out numbered, out generaled and, thanks to having no maps of their own country and a cavalry corps afraid of ambush by Algerian tribesmen (it's a long story) frequently lost. They also had, in place of real artillery, a weapon that was pants.

The Mitrailleuse, as they called it, was treated it like a cannon and grouped it in batteries. As their own artillery was usually waiting at the rear for orders that never came they frequently had to use it as a cannon too, and the German Krupp guns made mincemeat of it.

Critics said they should have used it like a modern machine gun and issued it to the infantry. However they neglect the fact that the device weighed nearly a metric ton and came on large wooden wheels. Without a team of horses it was virtually impossible to move. As secret weapons go, it came up a bit short. It's tragic history is perhaps typified by one version which was captured from the French by the Germans, given to the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, captured again by the British and pressed into service against the Boers. It doesn't appear to have been much use to any of its owners.

That anyone could regard this unreliable device as a potential war winner is to write history backwards, and to project the killing power of the Maxim guns of World War One onto its large and unworthy frame.

Or take the internal combustion engined motor car. Up until 1900 steam powered cars held all the land speed records, and also did well in early motor races.

Or the aeroplane. This seems a bit of  no-brainer, but read the history of aviation and up until the 1930s the long distance speed records are largely held by airships, mostly the Graf Zeppelin.

Or transistor radios. The sound quality of the first ones was considerably worse than that of valve radios.

Or computer games. The first mass produced game, Pong, was simpler and less interesting than the pinball machines it replaced in pubs.

And so on. In fact, often the person we remember as inventing a device is in fact just the person who got it to work properly, such as James Watt or Werner von Braun.

Eventually machine guns, petrol engined cars, aeroplanes, transistor radios and computer games would blow the opposition away completely with their abilities - literally in the case of machine guns. But at the time they first caught on, it was factors other than outright performance that gave them the edge.

Machine guns caught on because people engaging in the mucky business of Empire building found them lighter than conventional artillery and passably effective against people who, unlike the German Army, couldn't shoot back. Petrol engines were easier to start than steam engines and didn't have heavy boilers that could explode and kill you. Zeppelins were magnificent machines, but cost as much as Battleships, whereas early aeroplanes cost no more than contemporary cars. Transistors made radios much smaller, allowing kids to sneak off to listen to music their parents wouldn't approve of. I've no idea why Pong was such a success, except that it allowed ordinary people to play with something that resembled a computer.

All of which should give advocates of Green Energy something to think about.

We are at the moment in a 'Great Game' in which all the candidates for low carbon energy; on-shore wind, off-shore wind, solar, carbon capture and storage, tidal, nuclear, biomass etc are all fighting each other as well as unconventional oil.

We don't know who will win, but the raw cost of energy may well not be the most important factor. Already nuclear has pretty much dropped out of the race due to Fukoshima, even though we don't have too many Tsumamis here.

Quite possibly what will win it for renewables is the convenience of being off grid or the security of being out of the Persian Gulf or maybe something we haven't thought of yet. Certainly people seem to like having a part share in power generation or seeing the former industrial areas of Britain getting back into engineering. 

Predicting the future of technology is a mugs game.

When I was young science fiction writers thought that by now we'd have colonies on Mars but that computers would still be the size of houses. The tendency is to over emphasise whatever is grabbing the news headlines that week and ignore the underlying trend. With hindsight we should have ignored Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and spotted that a 16 bit computer could now be bought for 'only' $8000.

So what can we conclude?

Only that judging an energy by what it can do now or how well it can replace coal and oil may be a big mistake. Green Energy is the future, or rather, it must be Green Energy if we are to have a future, but what form that energy will take will be hard to predict.

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