Energy transitions, feasibility studies and the limits of abstraction: the case for a (soft) systems approach

As noted in my introductory post, over the past five years a number of prominent reports have concluded that transition from fossil-fuelled to renewably-powered economies is technically and economically feasible on national and even global scales, without need for change in the cultural landscape. They conclude that entire national energy infrastructures can be replaced—over periods ranging from 10 to 40 years—with little need for us to adjust our socio-economic expectations. In fact, given the roles assumed for large-scale centralised infrastructure in these studies, relatively few of us would need to be involved in the actual implementation, let alone decision making, planning and co-ordination. A common message seems to be that we shouldn’t expect to be inconvenienced by these technologically significant but socially, culturally and economically benign changes.

To most observers, presentation of such findings in the language of technical and economic feasibility may pass without much remark. From an engineer’s perspective though, it raises a flag. Technical and economic feasibility have quite a specific meaning in engineering parlance—in essence, this means that a) sufficient work has been done to be confident that overall cost will fall within a specified range; and b) that following from this, financiers’ expectations with respect to return on investment can be met. To be clear, none of the studies that I’m thinking of actually make such claims directly—this is just what is usually expected for infrastructure projects on the scale of millions through to multiple billions of dollars, prior to commencing engineering design. Given the enormous scale of the proposals we’re talking about—from hundreds of billions of dollars upwards—then they’d surely be expected to conform with established conventions in this respect. At least, this would be the case if approached as top-down, centrally-administered engineering projects. You may well query, though, why I’d assume such an approach. Given the unprecedented nature and scale of the proposals perhaps they would demand a fundamentally different approach to that which suits, say, construction of a single power station. That’s a question I’ll return to in due course. For now though, I’m simply taking my cue from the nature of the reports themselves, and the general method on which they are based: aggregation of generic public-domain data from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, along with original work involving a variety of desk-based modelling techniques.
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