Obama Should Take Systems Approach to Clean Energy

Old school systems engineering would create a plan based on a strategic goal

3 min read

The Obama administration is developing a clean energy system as if it were a science project. The focus is on technology and ideas, not systems and strategic goals. The emphasis is on near term solutions with no effort made to envision what the whole system should look like 40 years from now. There are no phases, no disciplined reviews, no milestones. The hope seems to be that somebody will invent something great, solving all our problems in the blink of an eye.

An example of this science approach is a recent report entitled America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation (AEF), by the Committee on America's Energy Future, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council. This was a multi-year study that developed a baseline energy scenario based on “a projection of current economic, technology ... and policy parameters.”  

The AEF baseline scenario is an evolutionary one. That means it looks at what exists today and asks how today’s technologies be improved. Good things come from this approach, including energy efficiencies, the smart grid, and quick returns on investment. One down side, though, is that today’s reality of uncertain rules, regulation, policy, legacy system integration, and rapidly changing technologies are all mixed together. With such confusion, and no easy way to pick out the most important issues or solutions, it is no wonder that the AEF study concluded that there is no “silver bullet,” recommending a “balanced portfolio approach” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, "old school" systems engineering is driven by a purpose, a strategic goal. President Obama has provided an excellent strategic goal: to reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 2005 levels by 83 percent by 2050. This goal is certainly feasible. During the past 40 years France developed a nuclear electric power system that is 78 percent carbon free. There is no technical reason why the US cannot use nuclear to achieve 83 percent reduction in emissions over the next 40 years if the president, Congress, and the American people choose to do so. There is no development risk.

The main barrier to nuclear power, however, is the high cost of capital due to the risk of political obstructions. For this reason, the AEF evolutionary study viewed nuclear power as unattractive. But because disciplined development separates engineering from policy, a purely engineering-based approach such as the recent MIT study on the future of nuclear power comes up with different answers. The MIT study compared the direct cost of different technologies with the same cost of capital as: 6.6/6.2/6.5 ¢/kWh for nuclear, coal, and gas, respectively. Thus, after an objective assessment of the facts, the client—in this case the president, Congress, and the American people—could choose between the negatives of carbon dioxide emissions and the fear of using nuclear power, then create policy based on that balanced, informed choice.

Unlike evolutionary scenarios, strategic scenarios address the ability of a whole system to achieve a goal. For example, wind power looks attractive from an evolutionary point of view because we can certainly build systems that are 10-20 percent wind-powered. But a recent paper entitled Wind Energy Contribution to a Low Carbon Grid shows that wind cannot contribute much to a grid that is substantially carbon free because the wind subsystem is 80 percent dependent on fossil fuel generators for backup.

Both evolutionary and strategic scenarios are concerned with the uncertainty of changing technologies. But as with any long-term program, engineers incorporate risks and uncertainties into the engineering development plan. A clear purpose, the strategic goal, is what simplifies classic engineering development plans. Every approach is continuously tested against its ability to achieve the goal. Further, the suite of strategic scenarios is simplified by separating engineering from policy, ignoring legacy system constraints, and basing plans on technology as we know it today, rather than hoping for grand innovations.

It seems clear that the big challenge in clean energy development is not technology; it is the sheer number and diversity of stakeholders. Energy affects everyone, and everyone has an opinion. In my next post, I will show how disciplined engineering simplifies the politics and management of stakeholder interests.

Alex Pavlak is a PhD Professional Engineer with experience in systems architecture and the economics of wind power systems. He has had various management responsibilities in the development of large military systems. He has spent 15 years in alternate energy and holds several patents pending on wind turbines and static solar concentrators. apavlak@comcast.net

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