Complex Systems & A Theoretical Argument Against Green Energy
There are many practical reasons to be against green energy: it’s expensive, it shifts economic (and therefore political) power from the US to China, and it’s bad for the environment because the economy is an open system (offshored factories in China have higher emissions).
I’m a practical guy, so I find arguments like this compelling—empirical observation’s sufficient.
But many don’t.
Most liberals are convinced that the potential risks posed by climate change (even if we don’t know what they are) are so large (or at least potentially large) that it’s worth absorbing the known costs to avoid them.
This argument is valid and compelling: earth’s climate is a complex system (governed by second-order causality) and tampering with complex systems should be avoided if at all possible.
We don’t know what’ll happen when we tinker with them, and sometimes the unknown consequences can be ruinous—just think of how a few bunnies that escaped captivity in Australia have decimated local fauna.
Who would have thought?
Likewise, complex systems are susceptible to butterfly effects (causal non-linearities): even small changes can have big consequences down the road.
It’s for this reason that I think man should reduce his environmental footprint when possible, and when the opportunity costs are nominal—reduce, reuse, recycle continues to be great advice.
But I have a major theoretical problem with green energy: in attempting to preserve one complex system (the environment), green energy advocates create another (a fully-integrated power grid).
If you want to kill hydra, bring a torch—not another hydra.
Green Energy is Bad Due to Systemic Fragility
Let’s look at this problem in terms of two types of power grids: the first relies exclusively on nuclear energy, the second relies exclusively on wind power. In both cases the environmental impact, in terms of carbon emissions, is the same—nil.
Therefore, both help reduce mankind’s hypothetical impact on the complex system that is the climate. I can get behind this.
What I have a problem with is the fact that the second option creates another complex system to deal with the problem: this makes our civilization more fragile.
It risks modernity itself.
It would be better to do nothing instead.
Nuclear Energy: A Robust, Simple System
Pretend we’re in a country called Avalon.
Avalon is home to 100 million people, who get their power from 10 different nuclear plants. Each plant operates autonomously, and serves a region of 10 million people.
If one plant stops working for whatever reason, 10 million people lose power—inconvenient, but not the end of the world.
To improve the grid, Avalon’s engineers integrate the power grid a little: now if a power plant or two go offline, power can be re-routed from nearby to mitigate the shortfall.
If one plant stops working, no one loses power. Smart.
However, there are downsides: a more integrated grid means that if things go wrong, they can spread further.
For example, in the event of a cascading power failure (or something we cannot yet imagine), rather than just 10 million people losing power (as was the case where there were ten autonomous grids), the contagion can spread farther—infecting 20 or 30 million people.
But luckily, because each grid can operate independently, the contagion is limited—it can be quarantined, and if not, it can only spread so far organically.
As a result, there is no chance of everyone losing power because of a single endogenous event (something happening within the grid).
This system has built-in redundancies, it’s robust—you can sink one large ship with a cannonball, but not ten smaller ships. The same goes for the power grid.
Something like this happened in the 2003 Blackout—50 million people ended up losing power.
Thankfully, the power failure cascade could only spread so far because our power grid still operates with some autonomy.
In the grand scheme of things it could’ve been a lot worse—some 360 million people in the US and Canada could have been effected, only 50 million were.
And even then the damage it caused was severe: people died without power, it cost billions, there was looting etc.
Green Energy: A Fragile, Complex System
Now pretend that Avalon switches over to 100% wind power.
The thing about electricity is that it’s consumed the instant it’s created, meaning that power grids require a stable current. Wind doesn’t provide that.
This is a problem called intermittentcy—the generation of wind energy is inherently volatile. The wind’s not always blowing, and sometimes it’s blowing too hard. Wind power is volatile.
There are a few ways around this: one is to store extra power in batteries, or dams. Right now, this isn’t commercially viable in many places (not to mention it requires huge capital investments in additional infrastructure). It’s also restricted according to local geography.
Not to mention the stored supply will be finite; longer power droughts could be ruinous.
Another option is to have backup gas-powered generators that can scale up and pick up the slack. This is fine, but because said generators always have to be running, it defeats the purpose of switching to green energy.
Likewise it’s expensive and inefficient to double-up on generation capacity (in the event that the wind’s not blowing, you need enough capacity to run the entire system).
The final option is to make it big: scale it up.
The wind’s always blowing somewhere, so integrating the grid to draw from far-off places smooths out local volatility—the same way mutual funds are less volatile than individual stocks.
Scale is the only way to make wind power (or solar) viable.
But by making the grid bigger (erasing the boundaries between the ten previous grids, in our example), we make the system exponentially more complex, and fragile.
Because we’ve removed what made the system robust: its compartmentalization, its autonomy. We’ve moved from a scenario where we have ten small ships, to one large ship—all the eggs are in one basket.
Of course, the large green grid is less likely to experience outages, but when problems happen, they’re ruinous and all-encompassing—nowhere is safe.
It’s possible that the entire grid could go down.
How Green Energy Could Destroy Civilization
But why is it a problem to have all the eggs in one basket? Just don’t drop the basket.
The problem is that when dealing with complex systems, perfect knowledge is impossible: we can’t engineer for every eventuality, because we don’t know what might happen.
Chance is more creative than man. There is simply no way to predict, or prevent unknown events from occurring and destroying the system. All we can do is make the system as robust as possible.
This is where green energy fails: to be viable, it must be highly integrated, but integration is a two-way street that doesn’t discriminate between good and bad.
A robust power grid is somewhat integrated, but not enough that the system itself is endangered.
Now, you might be wondering why a total collapse is so bad?
Going back to Avalon: why would 100 million people losing power all at once be worse than 100 million people losing power at different times over the course of a week?
It’s because the harm is non-linear.
Falling from ten feet up is more than ten times as dangerous as falling from one foot ten separate times—in this case harm accelerates, it grows exponentially.
Likewise with a power failure: bigger failures are exponentially more costly and damaging than small failures.
The adjacent graph illustrates the point: while the semi-autonomous nuclear grid may experience more small-scale power outages, the maximum harm is limited.
However, because the wind powered grid is so highly integrated, there is no organic limit to how much damage can occur—the entire grid is hypothetically vulnerable.
This could cause trillions in damage and lost productivity (the linked example deals with grid failures due to solar flares, but the point is the same)—and it could get a lot worse.
A protracted, total power outage could spiral into utter chaos, taking us back to the Medieval Ages.
Building a Robust & Efficient Power Grid
To keep the power grid robust, we need to ensure that it retains a degree of functional autonomy: inter-connectivity and complexity is what makes it fragile, and puts us all at risk.
Keep it simple.
Retaining local generation means sticking with traditional power sources, like coal, gas, and uranium—and when available, hydroelectric or geothermal.
Will doing so result in zero emissions? No. But it’s better to deal with sometime simple and time-tested, than something complex and unproven.
And if we like, we can invest in ways to improve the efficiency of said plants, and thereby reduce their carbon footprint. This would be cheaper and safer.
After all, it worked with our cars: they use one-third the fuel than they did 40 years ago—and we did it without investing billions of public dollars.
Sometimes it’s best to just let things sort themselves out: often by getting involved, we just make things worse.