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  • Writer's pictureSol J

The need for "something else"

In search of miracles, even the giants have found they can't buy their way into heaven

In today's blog we analyse the position of Big Tech on the so-called energy revolution and see that they are not equipped to come up with the answers.

"The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." - Bertrand Russell

Mark P Mills of the Manhattan Institute, in his June 2019 paper entitled "The New Energy Economy": An Exercise in Magical Thinking" makes the following observations of the role that tech giants have played in developing a new energy paradigm:

"The inexorable march of technology progress for things that use energy creates the seductive idea that something radically new is also inevitable in ways to produce energy. But sometimes, the old or established technology is the optimal solution and nearly immune

to disruption.

We still use stone, bricks, and concrete, all of which date to antiquity. We do so because they’re optimal, not “old.” So are the wheel, water pipes, electric wires ... the list is long. Hydrocarbons are, so far, optimal ways to power most of what society needs and


More than a decade ago, Google focused its vaunted engineering talent on a project called “RE<C,” seeking to develop renewable energy cheaper than coal. After the project was cancelled in 2014, Google’s lead engineers wrote: “Incremental improvements to existing

[energy] technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive. … We don’t have the answers.”

Those engineers rediscovered the kinds of physics and scale realities highlighted in this paper. An energy revolution will come only from the pursuit of basic sciences. Or, as Bill Gates has phrased it, the challenge calls for scientific “miracles.” These will emerge from basic research, not from subsidies for yesterday’s technologies. The Internet didn’t emerge from subsidizing the dial-up phone, or the transistor from subsidizing vacuum tubes, or the automobile from subsidizing railroads.

However, 95% of private-sector R&D spending and the majority of government R&D is directed at “development” and not basic research. If policymakers want a revolution in energy tech, the single most important action would be to radically refocus and expand

support for basic scientific research.

Hydrocarbons—oil, natural gas, and coal—are the world’s principal energy resource today and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Wind turbines, solar arrays, and batteries, meanwhile, constitute a small source of energy, and physics dictates that they

will remain so. Meanwhile, there is simply no possibility that the world is undergoing—or can undergo—a near-term transition to a “new energy economy.”

Money has never bought a miracle, miracles are products of nature, the subject of wonder in the small minds of men. The biggest tech giant in the world, the second richest billionaire in the world and arguably one of the world's leading physicists in the field of energy and innovation have, by their own admission, drawn a blank. This is not a reflection of their intellectual capacity. But more often than not, it is the diversity of thought or being unconstrained by an academic or political paradigm that can yield the greatest intellectual returns. The non-dualistic, non-theistic mind.

What do we mean by that? Theisms are modes of thinking and social organisation that are dependent on, subservient to, and built on beliefs in some overarching governing power that sets out in fixed, rigid ways, what is and what is not, what to do and not to do, eat and not eat, drink and not drink, say and not say, think and not think, all the way to determining who can live or not live. That is, they frame things in either/or dualistic terms. They can take the form of a religion or be secular. In all cases when resource supplies, especially energy, get tight, they usually turn lethal because they are rigid and prevent finding effective solutions to emerging problems.

Science instead is resolutely non-theistic, free from beliefs. The great physicist David Bohm used to stress: “In scientific enquiries a crucial step is to ask the right question. Indeed each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit. If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning. One has thus to inquire into the appropriateness of the question.” (Bohm, David, 1980, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 28.)

The developers of all current "solutions" that Mark Mills rightly critiques have failed to enquire into the appropriateness of the questions they sought to address. In consequence they have failed (the Google RE<C project) or are well on their way to resounding failure (the decarbonising drive based on wind turbines, photovoltaics, biomass, and/or nuclear.

In the above context, what we can take away from Mills' article is a simple conclusion - the things we keep coming back to in our technology are attractive because they work. Nature has an uncanny knack of selecting optimal solutions to problems, nowhere more so than in the realm of energy use. What appear as miracles to us are the result of billions of years of selection processes that have tuned nature in ways we can only dream of.

Humans don't "invent" things out of thin air, they discover principles of nature through a process of enquiry and then apply those principles to practical problems. The invention step happens all by itself in trying to bring those two pieces of understanding together, but it takes time, the process is organic and necessarily builds on previous knowledge.

The global industrialised world's situation is dire, and yet paradoxically there is no energy scarcity. Presently, our requirements are in the order of 19 TWy (Terawatts per year), yet we receive 23,000TWy of energy from the sun, that is, the Earth receives well over 1,100 times the global industrialised world's energy requirements each year. This is close to 15 times the total once-off reserves of the whole world's fossil fuel and nuclear reserves combined... This energy is all around us, all the time, keeping us warm against the frigid endless night of deep space and it keeps coming, every day, like a miracle. And it is just the first miracle that has led to the whole cascade of miracles that we call Earth Life.

To address the Great Oil Fizzle and build a bright future, we must follow David Bohm's advice, that is, make sure we understand the problem before rushing to illusory solutions. In doing so, instead of looking down and mining more unviable resources whilst trashing our environment, better to be looking up and focusing on sound thermodynamics. The challenge is to figure out how to access a modest amount of that super abundant solar energy, sustainably and at lower costs than fossil or nuclear resources. Unfortunately renewables don't make the grade either for the simple fact they are still dependent on fossil fuels, and that they do not change the overall appalling inefficiency of our energy supply systems (about 88% wastage). "Something else" is needed.

Consider a simple thought experiment. Assume that we are to design transport or electricity supply systems “from scratch”, from a zero base, without the weight of a legacy system developed haphazardly over two centuries.

Would we design systems with only 12% energy efficiency, systems that change the climate, destroy entire ecosystems, damage health, and imperil present global civilisation? Obviously not.

Instead we would proceed with method, from first principles and use as a guide the one and only fully sustainable complex system available to us, i.e. Earth Life, which is what we have done to arrive at the nGeni. Proceeding in this fashion, the long and complex list of requirements to be satisfied transforms into a much simpler one, as we will explore in future blogs.

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