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Is the Technology Ready for the Energy Transition? - Barış Sanlı


No. If you look at the railroads and locomotives from the early 20th century, you may well contemplate high-speed trains then. Trains were invented 150-200 years ago and are widely used, but they do not dominate the mode of transportation in many other countries. Having some sort of steam locomotive is one thing; operating a high-speed rail is another. The knowledge accumulation needed to get from one to another is years.


On the other hand, from mobile phones to smartphones, speed is a much different issue. The distinction lies in the difference between large socio-technological systems essential for modern civilization and quasi-essential information technologies.


If you read "From the Earth to the Moon" by Jules Verne in 1867, you may think the technology is there to achieve a moon landing. You will need a bigger cannon, just like Hitler's super-gun "General Gustov," and you can fly to the moon. The 1910s or 1920s are the right time to forecast moon travel. Maybe in the 1950s, a colony on the moon is feasible if you look from 1867. But we know how the story ended.


Are we becoming a black box society? This means we are just looking at all sorts of systems around us as black boxes. We skip the detail and always try to frame it in terms of inputs and outputs. It is a mental shortcut for understanding complex everyday examples. But in energy transition, we are talking about changing the biggest real-time supply chain in the world: the electricity system. The current system is a packet of crystallized ideas of billions of engineers and scientists. How hard can it be to change this system?


Flash forward to 2007 and 2008. We will see references to the "Green New Deal" from writers to economists. Then in 2012, in 2019 in the US, followed by the EU, different versions of green deal discussions restarted. Just like business cycles, there are green cycles. Most of these intentions are good and real. But the "black box" understanding of the energy system keeps these ideas falling back into reality. More coal or gas or oil.


There are more pledges now. If you go back and check whether politicians are reviewing their past pledges, you can hardly find any evidence. Unfortunately, Europe may be trapped inside a pledge-more pledge-further pledge-like cycle without moving a bit. I call these gamblers' energy transitions. More pledges may sound good. But eventually, if you can not take the rabbit out of the hat, the show is over. The crowding out the investors left with bitter memories is a real threat.


We should go back and understand how all these discussions keep popping up. The first rule is that these discussions initiate with high reserve capacity in fossil systems and low fossil fuel price periods. Afterward, just as prices increase, they intensify. When the prices peak, the discussions run out of steam since consumers do not enjoy high energy prices. Their priority is to fill their gas tanks as cheaply as possible.


The other issue was about technology. The recent discussions are motivated by solar cost decreases. The technology is not new, just like railroad technology. But the scaling, manufacturing, automation, and efficiency effects are like high-speed rails.


What is needed now is to increase R&D exponentially on the details. Black box thinkers and their oversimplified models may have misled the world. Kodak was one of the early experimenters of digital photography. As of today, you can practically demonstrate every single technology to be deployed in the grid for the next 30 years. Does it mean you need to just scale up? No. Scaling up brings new challenges and technologies that black box philosophers can not even think about. Inventing the digital camera is one thing; getting to an iPhone with a front-face selfie is another. The distance is huge in engineering terms.