Wikipedia defines the silver bullet in folklore as one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf or witch. The term “silver bullet” is also a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical, solution to a difficult problem: for example, penicillin circa 1930 was a “silver bullet” allowing doctors to treat and successfully cure many bacterial infections.
My reason for this blog is to highlight that all too many of the ideas being talked about today to achieve a sustainable energy future are metaphorically silver bullets. They won’t work. Most of them will fail because they don’t work in the first place, are not economical, and/or will not scale to address the problem at hand. They may be nice hobby-like activities such as composting, or work when labor and/or raw materials are low cost, but they are not candidates for serious consideration at the scale required to make a difference.
It amuses me to see the trade press pick up on these ideas and proclaim them excitedly when the engineering under the hood is missing or frankly refutes the claimed benefits. The media is so uninformed about energy technology that they proclaim benefits and impacts without checking them.
Worse yet, once one media outlet proclaims something, they all seem to pounce on the idea as if it were the answer to the world’s problems. Headlines suggest this or that will be the death of the internal combustion engine or produce essentially unlimited energy with no adverse side effects.
Do you remember the phrase “trust but verify.” It is a Russian proverb. It was used often in the text of nuclear disarmament during the Cold War era by Ronald Reagan meaning the United States can trust the Soviet Union, but they need to do more than trust to make sure they won’t betray the United States.
Betrayal. Yep, that’s what the media are really doing these days: they are betraying us.
All this stands in stark contrast to the time when I was a young professional and all ideas were peer reviewed. Experiments done by one researcher had to be replicable by others. Conferences on topics were more about verification and rigor than fundraising pitch decks.
So, when you read the headlines about how all our energy problems are solved with green hydrogen, fuel cells, EVs, photovoltaics, and wind, think critically about the source and realities of that happening.