I’ve written many times before on the tendency to see some sort of new wonder technology as the savior for all our problems, so I hope I don’t sound like a broken record. But the hits just keep coming, so I thought I’d single out a few new technologies that have been nominated in the press recently as “game changers” that “will save the world” in the popular press.
The reactions to these are as fascinating as the technologies themselves. Each one promises to plug in to our current arrangements and make our current living arrangement sustainable. The popular press, as is its wont, serves these up on a platter to an American public looking for some sort of technological miracle to keep us from having to make hard choices or change our living arrangements in any way.
First, let’s look at something which got a bit of attention a while back – solar roadways. Given America’s love affair with driving, it seems awfully appealing that we could just turn all our roadways into solar panels and keep the Happy Motoring utopia chugging along. “Solar FREAKIN' roadways!” screams the over-the-top press juvenile release.
More level heads immediately saw the unfeasability of this idea. The immediate thing I noticed when I first saw the promotional image was that a series of low rise buildings line the road on both sides, but none of them have solar panels on the roof!
Solar panels function best when the sun’s rays are perpendicular to the panel, which is why they are recommended to be mounted at +-5 degrees of altitude (45 degree angle at 45 latitude). It just so happens that such a roof configuration is also ideal for shedding rain and snow in wet climates that exist at that latitude (too bad modernism dictates flat roofs). So why put all your solar panels flat on the ground, where they would be less efficient?
More to the point, why would come up with some sort of fancy high-tech solar roadway when you haven’t even bothered to put the solar panels we have right now on the roofs of your buildings? To me, this was the epitome of our starry-eyed worship of techno-novelty in the place of simpler common-sense solutions we could engage in right now.
But that’s only the beginning. What happens when ice and snow covers the roadways? What about all the difficulties of engineering glass to withstand the weight of cars and trucks. Isn’t glass slippery in wet conditions? Are there enough rare earth metals in the universe to cover the nation’s 75,000 square kilometers of road? And how, when governments can’t even maintain the roads they have now can we put down solar roadways down when we can’t even afford asphalt? We’re already turning roadways back into gravel for cost reasons. We can’t even afford to bury our electrical cables instead of hanging them on poles where they are vulnerable to weather. Parts of our electrical system date back to Thomas Edison. Shouldn't we fix that first?
Fortunately, I don’t have to go further debunking this idea because it’s been done for me, and with much more information:
Would Solar Roadways Work? A Government Engineer Discusses the Controversial Technology (GreenTechSolar)
Hard Road Ahead for Solar Freakin’ Roadways (Scientific American)
Are Solar Roadways the Answer to Our Energy Problems? (Sam Woolfe):
Now, the ‘Solar Freaking’ Roadways’ video praises the money-saving benefits of this futuristic technology, but much more money (and time) could be saved if solar panels were installed above parking spaces and/or by the side of the road, rather than beneath it. Why install solar panels in a harsh environment when they are constantly being run over and flexed by millions of tonnes of vehicles? There are many more practical locations. The textured glass surface itself will also reduce the amount of sunlight that could potentially reach the solar panels.
Another problem with the supposed costs of building these solar roadways is…who is going to pay for this astronomically expensive project? Well, it would have to be the government, but more pertinently, the taxpayers. It has been argued that the solar panels will pay for themselves because they generate energy (and therefore revenue) but how long would it take to match and then surpass the initial (astronomical) investment? 100 years? More? The planet is in a dire state of affairs – what we need are cost-efficient, speedy and eco-friendly solutions, not far-fetched utopian ideas.
Many others have been re-iterating these criticisms, saying that the project is not well thought out. Aaron Saenz on Singularity hub estimates that to replace all of the US roadway systems with solar roadways would cost $56 trillion dollars! That’s four times the country’s national debt. This estimate is based on Brusaw’s valuation of each solar unit costing $10,000 (which has a lifespan of only 20 years by the way) and based on the ~800 billion square feet of US roadway that would need to be covered. Furthermore, based on the prototypes developed, it is not clear that the panels can generate significant amounts of electricity. Another issue is how the roadways could store the electrical energy – as Saenz says: “…there would have to be some major infrastructure to translate a solar road into a continuous source of electricity.” In other words, more costs!
Another cost incurred from solar panels would be the need to convert DC electricity (which is what the solar panels would generate) into AC electricity (which is what we use and which is the easiest way to transport electricity around). To bury the necessary cables, which the couple envision doing, would also be very expensive.No Solar Roadways Anytime Soon (Chris Martenson):
I think the vigor and intensity with which people donated to this project speaks mainly to the desire to find a quick fix to our self-destructive ways. Turning our roadways into a magical paths that will end our economic woes, eliminate pollution, and reduce accidents touches right down upon that particular nerve.
But the idea simply does not pass the common sense test.
Why would we spend more on a per watt basis to get less out of a roadway when we could simply put known and proven technology up on all the vacant rooftops?
If people aren't inspired by the current returns of solar on rooftops or in open fields, they are going to positively hate the returns from the solar roadways idea. Poor orientation, shading, dirt, water and ice, wear and tear, and design considerations being driven by vehicle weight vs. maximizing solar gain are all going to erode this idea's final delivery compared to a traditional dedicated installation.
Instead of getting excited about a solar roadway, it's time to get serious about reducing our use of energy and putting what funds we have at our disposal into the myriad proven technologies that already exist and which can be implemented in known ways with calculable benefits.
Nowhere in this pitch for solar roadways that so many people have responded to is any science, economics or engineering for the viewer evaluate. There is no guesstimate of cost, no evaluation of output per unit of area, no comparison to existing solar substitutes, and no tests of dirt/grime or other occlusions showing the effect on output.
In other words, nothing that any reasonable person might use to assess whether this is a worthwhile idea or not.
From a marketing standpoint, though, I think they did fantastically. Solar FREAKIN' Roadways!!!Yup, in America it's all about the marketing isn't it?
Moving on past this stupid idea, we get to one with a bit more realism – self driving cars. I have to admit, from everything that has been reported so far, it seems like this is a slam dunk, ready to go solution. This has been touted as the solution for all our traffic woes. Because the computer drives so perfectly, it is argued, we will be able to cram even more cars on the roadways and with no accidents. In fact, this article claims that driving will become so simple and easy that suburbs will be a more attractive option and we'll have even more suburban sprawl. This article speculates about how the self-driving car will reshape our cities.
Like solar roadways, this is another techno-utopian solution that promises to keep the status quo going. But hold on a minute. This article on Slate casts serious doubt on whether the self-driving car is even viable. And reading it, I have to admit, I don’t see how self-driving cars stand a chance.
1.) They are dependent upon complex mapping and networks to navigate. What happens when the network goes down? And what happens when driving becomes dependent upon a single company? Will we have to pay Google just to drive?
2.) There is no way to deal with road closures and construction. Where I live, half the roads are closed at any given time, often with very little notice. What happens if a water main breaks and a street is closed. Keeping track of every road closure and every construction project in the country with perfect accuracy is nigh unto impossible.
3.) It’s been said that the car has driven 700,00 miles safely. But it turns out that these are miles on the same patch of roadway over and over again in sunny southern California!
4.) The car cannot park itself.
5.) The car cannot distinguish even simple obstacles like a plastic bag or cardboard box in the middle of the road from actual obstacles. Can it even handle potholes? It’s amazing how little this has been reported.
[T]he Google car was able to do so much more than its predecessors in large part because the company had the resources to do something no other robotic car research project ever could: develop an ingenious but extremely expensive mapping system. These maps contain the exact three-dimensional location of streetlights, stop signs, crosswalks, lane markings, and every other crucial aspect of a roadway....But the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. Since maps are one of the engineering foundations of the Google car, before the company's vision for ubiquitous self-driving cars can be realized, all 4 million miles of U.S. public roads will be need to be mapped, plus driveways, off-road trails, and everywhere else you'd ever want to take the car. So far, only a few thousand miles of road have gotten the treatment, most of them around the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California. The company frequently says that its car has driven more than 700,000 miles safely, but those are the same few thousand mapped miles, driven over and over again.
Another problem with maps is that once you make them, you have to keep them up to date, a challenge Google says it hasn't yet started working on. Considering all the traffic signals, stop signs, lane markings, and crosswalks that get added or removed every day throughout the country, keeping a gigantic database of maps current is vastly difficult. .. MIT roboticist John Leonard says it goes to the heart of why the Google car project is so daunting. "While the probability of a single driver encountering a newly installed traffic light is very low, the probability of at least one driver encountering one on a given day is very high," Leonard says. The list of these "rare" events is practically endless, said Leonard, who does not expect a full self-driving car in his lifetime (he’s 49).
But the biggest issue with the Google car is one that has bedeviled computer researchers for as long as computers have been around: how to endow the machines with the sort of everyday knowledge that humans acquire and use from childhood on. Because Google is promising the world a totally driverless car, it will need an in-vehicle computer that can deal not only with all the obvious tasks of driving but anything else the world throws at it, whether on a congested city street or a highway with an 85 mph speed limit.
Computer scientists have various names for the ability to synthesize and respond to this barrage of unpredictable information: "generalized intelligence,” "situational awareness,” "everyday common sense." It's been the dream of artificial intelligence researchers since the advent of computers. And it remains just that. "None of this reasoning will be inside computers anytime soon," says Raj Rajkumar, director of autonomous driving research at Carnegie-Mellon University, former home of both the current and prior directors of Google's car project. Rajkumar adds that the Detroit carmakers with whom he collaborates on autonomous vehicles believe that the prospect of a fully self-driving car arriving anytime soon is "pure science fiction."The autonomous Google car may never actually happen. (Slate)
So the actual experts believe this is “pure science fiction.” But you wouldn’t know this from reading the press would you?
Finally, let’s turn to a potential solution to our energy predicament – fusion reactors.
Consider the reaction to the news that Lockheed Martin had made some sort of “breakthrough” what was actually quite fuzzy) in creating a fusion reactor. This was widely reported. This certainly falls under the rubric of “they will think of something” After all, those scientists at Lockheed Martin are very smart people.
But people who know a little bit more about this idea were skeptical:
On paper, fusion energy has almost unlimited potential. A fusion reaction releases an extraordinary amount of energy by slamming together light atoms, such as hydrogen, to make heavier ones, such as helium. (Fission is essentially the opposite: breaking apart heavy atoms, such as uranium, to make lighter ones.) Fusion is the same process that powers the sun—and it's so efficient that we'd have enough atomic fuel on Earth to satisfy our civilization's need for energy for, essentially, forever. The problem is that it's really hard to slam those atoms together hard enough. You need incredibly high temperatures, tens or hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, so that the atoms are moving fast enough to get the reaction going. But as you heat your fuel up, you have to keep it contained. A 100-million-degree plasma wants to explode in all directions, but if you're going to keep the reaction going, you have to keep it bottled up. What do you make the bottle out of?
The sun's bottle is gravity. Because the sun is so massive—more than 300,000 times the mass of our planet—it has an enormous gravitational field. It's this field that compresses and constrains the hydrogen fuel and keeps it from flying off every which way. But without a sun-size mass to provide the gravity, you've got to find other ways. One way—and it works beautifully—is to use an atom bomb as the bottle. …The design works, but it’s a pretty poor solution to the world's energy needs. It's tough to turn a fusion weapon into a safe supplier of electricity.Bottling up the power of the sun will always be 20 years away. (Slate)
And another comment:
Lockheed hasn’t released many details of their concept (at least, not enough details that it can actually be evaluated in technical detail), but it looks like it’s a combination of a magnetic mirror and a levitated dipole. The magnetic mirror was studied in detail in the 1960s and 1970s and didn’t work out (due to [detailed plasma physics reasons]) and the levitated dipole has a fundamental flaw as a power-producing reactor in that the superconducting magnets are inside the neutron shielding – neutrons destroy the magnets.
It’s tough as a scientist to be able to comment on things like this, because it’s “science by press release”, i.e. there’s a big media hype but the actual researchers don’t release enough technical details to actually evaluate it. One wants to remain cautiously optimistic, but with fusion in particular, we’ve been down this road many, many times. Thus I predict that the most likely outcome is that as they scale their device up, they’ll find that the confinement (a measure of how well the device holds a fusion plasma) unexpectedly drops off due to some different types of turbulence turning on at higher temperatures / higher pressures… and it will quietly go away.From the comments, on a fusion reactor (Marginal Revolution)
Grist also points out the fallacy of thinking some new gee-whiz technology will solve all the world’s energy and climate woes:
First, to address climate change, we need to stop using fossil fuels fast. To stay below the internationally agreed upon limit of 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent by the year 2050. If we put off our reductions until the second half of the century, we will have overstuffed the atmosphere with so much carbon that we will be sailing into 3 degrees C and greater temperature rise by 2100, triggering very serious long-term feedback loops that put us at risk for warming that will continue for centuries, even if we get our carbon emissions under control.
Second, for this new technology to displace fossil fuels, it would need to reach billions of people in very short order. Over a billion people worldwide don’t have access to electricity, but millions each year are gaining access. This new technology would need to be deployed worldwide to reach people with energy access now, and others who will soon get it. To do this, Lockheed Martin would have to produce and ship millions of fusion reactors, each of which is expected to be the size of a school bus.
So, the challenge, for those betting on new technology to get us out of this climate mess, is that within 35 years, we need a new zero-carbon technology to come out of the lab, become commercially available, and for the world to adopt its use right away. Anything that develops beyond 2050 will be important, but won’t help us avoid the worst of climate change...Consider this: The first public cellphone call was made in 1973. Ten years later, the first cellphones became commercially available. From 1984, it took another 15 years or so for cellphones to become the ubiquitous devices they are today. That’s very fast. We’ve never seen this in the energy sector.Fusion won't save us from climate change (Grist)
So these three techno-solution reported by the popular press and trumpeted by a bunch of optimists who don’t know anything about the technologies themselves. When examined closely by people who do know what they are talking about, however, these turn out to be “vaporware” a product announced with great fanfare to the general public but never actually manufactured or officially cancelled.
This reminds me of all the talk about how solar panels and 3d printing will bring about a New Industrial revolution – the implication being we’ll go back to the employment and growth rates of the first two industrial revolutions. But to me, it seems like 3D printing just produces more plastic junk which we have too much of anyway. And by many measures, producing 3D goods takes more energy than large-scale manufacturing and distribution. See:
I won’t point the finger at one company or one discipline but I am struck by the absence of sustainable discourse in the maker movement. Daily, we read swooning odes to the 3-D printer, the CNC router and other cutting edge manufacturing technologies but read almost nothing that approaches these developments through a much-needed critical lens. Every tchotchke is celebrated as if it were as significant as the wheel or the printing press.
In Japanese culture, there is a word for this: chindogu. The literal translation is “weird tool,” but the concept is about utility, or lack thereof. Kenji Kawakami coined the term as a way to point out objects that are invented under the premise of solving a problem, but which, in practice, only generate more problems, rendering them devoid of utility. Kawakami humorously calls them “unuseless,” which is to say, they have a function, it’s just not one that helps us (and it may be one that harms us).
In Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner writes of what he calls the “ironic unintended consequences’’ of human ingenuity, ranging from antibiotics that promise the cure of disease but end up breeding resistant microorganisms, to a new football helmet, designed to reduce injuries, that actually encourages a more violent style of playing, thus creating the risk of more serious injury. We’re experiencing some of these ironies now as we use technology to solve the wrong problems. We’re in a period where almost anyone has the tools to make almost anything – but are we making the right things? Or too many of the wrong ones?
There seems to be a misconception about what 3D printing does and does not enable. Does it allow us to delight a four-year-old by pulling a mini Darth Vader toy seemingly out of thin air? It does. But the object doesn’t materialize from nothing. A 3D printer consumes about 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than injection molding to make an item of the same weight. On top of that, the emissions from desktop 3D printers are similar to burning a cigarette or cooking on a gas or electric stove. And the material of choice for all this new stuff we’re clamoring to make is overwhelmingly plastic. In a sense, it’s a reverse environmental offset, counteracting recent legislation to reduce plastic use through grocery bag bans and packaging redesigns. While more people tote reuasable cloth bags to the supermarket, plastic is piling up in other domains, from TechShop to Target.
Yes We Can. But Should We? (Allison Arieff, Medium)
Is digital fabrication and 3D printing sustainable? (Treehugger)
And this brings me to another point I make often – I believe we’re constantly promised these miracle technologies in order to keep us complacent and to prevent us from questioning a system that is increasingly falling apart. As long as we keep waiting for the big techno-fix to come along and solve all our problems, we will endure any hardship along the way to make it happen. As James Howard Kunstler has said, we are "conditioned to expect miracles." But we need to get over it. Miracles, by definition, are impossible.
“They will think of something” takes all the agency out of our hands – which is what those in power want.