Is Clean Energy a Wicked Problem? – Part 2

William Storage           19 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Science, Technology & Society Center

Nowhere to Run AnymoreIn the last post I looked at Rittel and Webber’s  definition of wicked problem toward determining whether clean energy met that definition. Answering that involves figuring out what we mean by clean energy.

The clean energy problem is closely linked to the issue of climate change, though they are not equal. The climate change problem is usually taken to mean that, given that anthropogenic warming has occurred and will continue unless greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced (note this is a premise I don’t care to argue about here), either geoengineering or dramatic changes to energy production techniques are urgently needed. Clean energy assumes that dramatic changes to energy production techniques are urgently needed to correct man-made climate change along with other constraints and provisions.

The  energy problem also includes the need for a continuous supply of energy for the lifetime of the human race, along with getting that energy to developing nations. I.e., even if coal could be made clean, through carbon sequestration or similar, the energy problem would not be solved by burning coal, since it is in finite supply. We may disagree about size of that supply, but not about its finitude. Security of supply must be included too. If oil were clean and in near-infinite supply, but only sourced by hostile governments, design of an energy production system should accommodate that constraint. Terms like green, sustainable, renewable, and alternative are off the table for this discussion. They are too nebulous, ideological, or overloaded. Clean does not necessarily imply renewable. If coal were infinite and clean, it would suffice, as would fusion if it existed. Further, many energy sources today called renewable, my not be sufficiently clean for indefinite use since their energy production densities are too low to supply a significant portion of global demand without major modifications to the earth. More on that in a later post.

Others have put far more thought into defining long term energy requirements than I, so I’ll draw from some experts in the field. Combining David MacKay’s three motivations (Sustainable Energy – without the hot air with, p. 5) and The Hartwell Paper’s three overarching objectives yields something along these lines:

  • The energy supply cannot be finite (in practical terms).
  • It must be secure.
  • It cannot change the climate.
  • It must ensure energy access for all.

I’m specifically not including adaptation and I’m aware that we can quibble over whether universal energy access is a principle, a constraint or a goal. Still, I think this is decent working set. The beginning of an attempt to convert these goals into a requirement might look something like this:

A means of providing sufficient energy for the human race to flourish for 10,000 years without significantly altering the surface and atmosphere of the planet in the acquisition of energy (population growth may require extensive modification of the planet, but that’s out of scope here).

You might then attempt to quantify “flourish” and “significantly alter” by coming up with an energy quantity per person, a percentage of earth’s surface devoted to energy production, and an allowable carbon production per unit of energy.

I’m not saying getting agreement on the numbers will be easy or even possible; I’m merely outlining the process toward the goal of deciding how wicked the energy problem is.

With this in mind let’s have a look at Rittel’s properties of wicked problems against the energy problem as summarized above to see which of them apply (Yes or No, below). Refer to yesterday’s post for more detail on each of the 10 properties.

1. No definitive formulation – solving the problem is identical to understanding its nature: No
Understanding the nature of clean energy and even anthropogenic climate change is mostly independent from solving it. The social components of climate change, energy demand and energy production are not mysterious or unpredictable. Economists and scientists have had great success in that area. The vagaries of climate prediction and extent to which climate change is manmade are rather independent of the solutions that might be put in place based on any such predictions and analyses. This one clearly does not apply; clean energy is not wicked based on this criterion of wickedness.

2. No stopping rule: No
Since atmospheric carbon, temperature, population, sea level, disease, starvation, and energy production and consumption are reasonably measurable, there clearly is a stopping rule in place for clean energy.

3. No formal decision rules – better/worse, not true/false: Yes
One might argue that if a set of metrics could be agreed-upon, clean energy actual does become true/false, but I don’t think that is fair to Rittel’s intent for this rule.

4a. No ultimate test of solution: No
For the same reasons stated in rule 1, clean energy solutions are reasonably testable.

4b. Unintended consequences: Yes
Leaving geoengineering out of the picture, we’d still need to watch for surprises, especially from low density production schemes that would involve large transformations, e.g., massive solar or wind farms, tide and ocean wave modification, geothermal plants, and carbon sequestration schemes.

5. One-shot operation – no second chance: No
Some concern over the ramifications of expending all a government leader’s political capital on short-term measures with trivial contribution toward a solution is warranted; but overall, energy initiatives are very tolerant of experimentation and learning by trial. This is especially on a global scale, even with disasters like Chernobyl and red herrings like fuel cells in the 1990s.

6. No enumerable or exhaustively describable set of potential solutions: No
Nature, physics and economics combine to yield a finite set of policy and technology components to a solution. Yes, there are infinite permutations of the components, but this is always true. In any case, the potential solutions and their elements are enumerable.

7. Unique problem: Yes
Aren’t they all?

8. The problem is a symptom of another problem: Yes
Human breeding habits, materialism, inequitable distribution of wealth, sexy car ads, inefficiency, indifference toward nature, bad science education, the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty are all problems of which the need for clean energy is symptomatic.

9. Numerous explanations: Yes
Yes, for the same reasons listed in number 9 above. The numerous explanations are in fact relevant, because they could materially affect the solution. For example, realizing that waste and inefficiency is significant can lead to product requirements that result in a lower figure for per-capita energy requirements. Japan has had remarkable success at this.

10. Planner has no right to be wrong: Yes
In the case of clean energy, answering Yes for item 10 seems to be in conflict with answering No for 4a. and 5. Repeated readings of Rittel and Webber have not allowed me to see a real difference between this and number 5 above. The difference between them may be more apparent in problems whose scope is urban planning, the original context of Rittel and Webber. Nevertheless, for sake of charity in argument, I’ll answer Yes here to represent the voice that, in the long haul, we have to get this right or civilization may fail.

So for Rittel’s ten properties, here presented as eleven, we have five No and six Yes responses. On that basis, clean energy can be said to be a half wicked problem. Systems engineers, product managers and designers might say that all engineering and design problems are partly – perhaps equally – wicked. This and other considerations make me wonder whether characterizing a problem as wicked has any practical use.

That will be the topic of my next post. I vow to make it more controversial.

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Photo: “Nowhere to Run Anymore” by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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