Nassim Taleb, if you’ve never read his stuff, is an odd and fascinating character; a writer with towering intellect, vast wealth, and an odd sort of humanistic humility, yet at the same time he provides a reliably volcanic reaction to pomposity or ineptitude. When those two are combined, he goes full nuclear (from his book Antifragile: “Risk management as practiced is the study of an event taking place in the future, and only some economists and other lunatics can claim – against experience – to ‘measure’ the future incidence of these rare events.…the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.”). I mention wealth as a defining characteristic not because it directly implies some great talent in itself, but because it supports Taleb’s case of DGAF (Google if you must), the most magnificent you’ll ever encounter.
A favourite Taleb topic is what he calls IYIs, Idiots Yet Intellectuals. While it is no doubt a provocative title, its widespread existence has proven remarkably valuable to many people and industries by highlighting that there is no guarantee that anyone currently lodged in the intellectual/academic field is not an idiot. Said person may be a global authority on, say, leaf pigmentation or Greek inflation or the dietary habits of incarcerated pimps, but those credentials do not mean they hold valid or even sensible opinions on anything beyond that.
There is a subtlety therein that Taleb explores in great detail, in a way few others do. A big part of Taleb’s value is to empower those that don’t feel like intellectuals (most of us) with the knowledge that we can, and should, feel free and able to call out BS if it appears to be nothing more. Everyone is an expert at something, whether a truck driver or brick layer or plumber or pilot or doctor or crude oil marketer. Each expert has a community of similarly skilled individuals, and we are lucky to be able to access these talent pools via trade publications and, yes, academic journals. We just need to remember that expertise is not universally transportable to other fields.
We especially need to remember that when it comes to energy. There is a desperation in the air to transform the global energy system, a desperation shared largely amongst the western elite ruling class. The other 7+ billion people are more interested in survival, but hey, they don’t call the shots, do they?
Those most ardently pushing a rapid energy transition are doing so on a case of escalating urgency. The head of the UN recently declared the phrase ‘global warming’ to be passé and apparently effete; he has adopted (as will his followers) the term ‘global boiling’. The mayor of London (UK London, the big one) quickly joined the chorus, tweeting the obligatory picture of a burning globe and commenting that “We need urgent green action on a colossal, unprecedented scale.”
Given that the western ruling class is of the highest academic credentials, that is where they turn for energy policy; an academic sub-industry has rapidly blossomed to provide the rulers with full support for their “Yes we can!” energy transition plans.
They’re trying to run in mud, but they just don’t get it. They think that because urgent action, accelerating action, at unprecedented scale is requested, all they have to do is map it out.
Academics tell governments: Absolutely, a colossal, unprecedented-scale energy transition is possible. Just look at our model! Build a million wind turbines. Wire them all together. Oh yeah, they’re intermittent, so throw in a million batteries. What are you all waiting for? Oh, and don’t talk to those crooked fossil fuel people. They should be in jail (Biden).
Taleb’s ideas bring quick clarity to an assessment of why these grandiose schemes leave us with a queasy feeling. We can look around and see a lot of successfully built wind, water and solar projects (WWS). But we can’t look forward and assume they will all be similar just because we have visual evidence of past successes. We may have kicked several thousand Indigenous people off the land to build hydroelectric dams in the past; are we so sure we can do that anywhere ever again? We built the first 100,000 wind turbines easily, do we know how hard it will be to build the next 100,000? Do we have materials? Approvals? Resistance? Will those problems grow? If so, by how much?
The industrial landscape is littered with examples of unplanned and huge roadblocks. A new high voltage transmission line across the southeastern US has taken 17 years to get approval. Another proposed high-voltage line in the northeastern US that would have brought “green” hydroelectric power (damming up a natural wonder to generate power is not unequivocally green, by any stretch) to the heavily populated US northeast was successfully blocked by environmentalists. A potentially huge lithium mine in Nevada has been held up for over a decade because of the existence of a rare flower on a key few acres. California’s high-speed rail project from LA to SF, initially targeted at $33 billion and to be in service by 2025, has a 2019 cost estimate update of $100 billion with an in service date of “unknown”. Robert Bryce, a Substack guy worth following, tracks renewable energy projects that have been cancelled due to public outcry and the number is significant and growing.
I’m not picking on green energy here. It’s the same for all energy. The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a 300-mile natural gas line under construction for years in the Appalachia region, is all but completed – only about 15 miles to go. Yet it has been held up in court indefinitely by activist campaigns. Recently, the ground shook as US President Biden stepped in to authorize removal of all barriers to the completion of MVP, and Secretary of Energy Granholm, who loathes hydrocarbons, declared MVP to be in the public interest. Yet even after these actions, activists still found a way to delay it further – they challenged the presidential decree in court and won a subsequent delay.
Here is where Taleb’s concepts gain particular value. His book Antifragile is in part about the robustness of that which has been proven. We know what works; it has been time-tested and honed and has the bugs worked out. Some might say that sucks, emissions wise, but it is the machine that has been built that we know keeps 8 billion people alive.
The sensible path to a transformation, particularly one as massive as an energy transition, is to integrate each new component at a pace that does not blow up the entire system, a pace where any errors are localized and not mass-destructive (Taleb: “The wise, like the fool, makes mistakes. The difference is that the wise is prepared & knows way ahead of time the cost of every mistake. For the wise, a mistake is local; for the fool, the mistake is global.”). Don’t confuse an energy transition with a cell phone transition; cell phones revolutionized communications by allowing us to speak and do almost anything from anywhere, an unfathomably more useful device than a landline. An energy transition offers nothing new to energy users, or nothing positive anyway, but it can offer much worse, if it is less reliable.
Anything to do with energy is anchored in the existing system, whether we like it or not. Renewables are possible only because of the existing hydrocarbon system. That fact has nothing to do with the potential of renewables; who knows what could come out of the search for new types of energy.
Many anchor-less energy transition commentators don’t understand the nuance involved. They argue for policy that will punish hydrocarbons and squeeze them out of existence, or, at a minimum, stand by silently while opponents do that exact thing via endless lawsuits, divestment campaigns, etc. The assumption is that by burning bridges we can only go forward.
They do not understand risk. To activists, the risk to humanity is that temperatures may rise due to additional carbon in the air, which may have certain consequences, which may have significant negative effects to humanity. They can’t comprehend the risk of dismantling the existing/functioning energy system too rapidly – a system that is responsible for everything man made around us.
They do not understand that the path to dealing with those potential issues is not to kill off the old energy system and replace it with a theoretical one. The International Energy Agency is one of the few entities to attempt a concrete net-zero 2050 roadmap; in it they conclude that the goal relies heavily on technology that does not exist yet or has never been proven at scale.
Of course there will be technological breakthroughs and advancements and maybe even the holy grail of energy systems like some miracle battery or cold fusion of superconductivity. Go inventors. Yet it is not much of a thought exercise to see that even any of these will be a massive global challenge to develop, test, construct, and integrate. For instance, what would room temperature superconductivity do to our existing electrical grid? What about the trillions of dollars of existing installations that work with known technology but might not with new? Where will the raw materials come from? How will we get them? Will we destroy excessive physical habitat to do so, if we try to do it too quickly?
Critics call this sort of thinking ‘foot-dragging’, and make accusations that such thoughts are simply pro-fossil-fuel barriers hastily thrown up to delay an energy transformation. These critics are powerful; Robert Bryce chronicled recently on Substack how famed economist Paul Krugman stated in the New York Times how technological advances in renewables mean that we can go all-renewable with little or no cost in terms of economic growth and living standards. “All gain-no pain” is the term used by NYT to describe this…stuff. (I reference Mr. Bryce’s writing on the NYT article rather than the article itself, because Mr. Bryce’s knowledgeable takedown of Krugman’s unreal thinking is far more relevant. (And I link nothing: C-18 paranoia)).
It is a step backwards to talk about articles like Krugman’s, because his entire renewables assumption is flawed for all the reasons described above. But here’s the problem: Policy makers read the NYT, because of the elite/academic/activist axis (Canada’s arch activist and federal Greenpeace/climate minister Guilbeault is all of these, and has, of course, been interviewed by the NYT). They do not read Bryce or BOE Report, because why talk to the mechanic when you can talk to the designer?
All of this has nothing to do with adoption of a ‘can-do’ attitude, an accusation hurled at those who question the inevitability of an all renewable future. A proper can-do attitude says: “Hey, I can start a business and make it succeed if I try hard enough.” It does not say: “Hey, I’m going to build a skyscraper with free dead branches.”
I’ll leave last words on the topic to the two camps. US Secretary of Energy Granholm has staffed the Department of Energy with anything-but-hydrocarbon people, absorbing energy advice from places like Stanford and Princeton universities (from a Stanford ‘research’ paper: “This study presents roadmaps for each of the 50 United States to convert their all-purpose energy systems (for electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) to ones powered entirely by wind, water, and sunlight (WWS). The plans contemplate 80–85% of existing energy replaced by 2030 and 100% replaced by 2050.” (The assumptions made are simply bizarre: by 2035, all new small, short-range (<1,500 km) planes are battery- or electrolytic-hydrogen powered”…”[Within 5 years of 2015 study date] all heating, drying and cooking in residential and commercial sectors is electrified…”) They have built their future energy roadmap on such recommendations.
But here is what the mechanics have to say: Four of the largest US grid operators, covering 30 states and 154 million people, warned (ok, one link, it’s important), jointly in a statement: “With continued and potentially accelerated retirements of dispatchable generation [gas or coal], supply of these reliability attributes will dwindle to concerning levels…. the Joint ISO/RTOs are concerned about a scenario in which…needed technologies are not widely commercialized in time to balance out large amounts of retirements.”
They’re not talking about WWS as ‘needed technologies’; they are talking about ‘needed technologies that are not widely commercialized’. In other words, in order for federal energy planning schemes to work, new tech must become viable and commercial. Quickly. And what is causing the grief is only an infinitesimal fraction of what the Stanford paper says is feasible.
From the mechanic’s viewpoint, dramatic emissions progress can be made in a few relatively simple steps: replace global coal power with natural gas, utilizing the trillions invested in existing infrastructure. Rapidly (as possible) develop small, medium, and large scale nuclear power. Convert that power into whatever you want – electricity for EVs, hydrogen for fuel-cells, etc. – to the extent that raw material availability allows. Humans won’t revolt, and we’ll all get along quite well.
Don’t buy magic beans. And please, please don’t vote for anyone that doesn’t know the difference. No one has any idea how much is at stake.