Silver Bullets?

This dates me, but one of my favorite TV shows growing up was the Lone Ranger.  After resolving an episode’s plot, he would leave behind his trademark silver bullet.

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.

When is one life worth more than another?

People mourn family members killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza during a funeral Sunday, October 8. Yasser Qudih/AFP/Getty Images

I seem to remember our nation’s sad history here when black slaves were not equal to whites. The United States Constitution’s infamous “Three-Fifths Clause” dictated that for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives African-American slaves were to be counted as less than full persons.

The recent hostage trades in the Middle East have made me wonder why nobody … and I mean nobody other than my wife … has pointed out the obvious disparity between the value of a prisoner of one side to the other. It kind of makes the racial value bias in our country seem trivial.

Go ahead and try to find out why one Hamas prisoner is worth about three of Israel’s in the news or in our national conversations even at universities?  Nada. Nothing. Worse yet, those in the Israeli jails are terrorists … not everyday citizens including children and the elderly. So, we are seeing trades at 3 to 1 of terrorists for innocent non-combatant civilians?

Yet look at the protests in the streets almost everywhere and you see the size of the protests are almost in the same proportion. Gee. It seems to me that the record shows Hamas attacked Israel and killed civilians en masse.

Yes, I know the situation is complex and there are so many underlying reasons for this mutual hatred and distrust. Yes, I know that radicals on both sides fail to appreciate the attempts of the larger centrist thinkers as they attempted to find a peaceful answer.

But, to me at least, the world is speaking with an even louder voice with their failure to see this hostage imbalance. It reeks of antisemitism in my opinion. There is no other way to explain it. Simply said, Jews are worth a lot less than others, especially their Arab neighbors.

Why the silence? Is this secretly some form of reparations? Why are college campuses aflame with rage when a Jewish professor tries to explain what is happening over there?  Yet this obvious imbalance is ignored.

Just askin … and I would like your opinion as well … if you even care.

Do We Really Want Choices

As I reflect on my career in the Energy Utility business, I remember how many times customers became angry because they didn’t have choices.  Some wanted to choose their supplier thinking that shopping for electricity would give them lower costs.  Most now agree that this didn’t prove to be true.  Yes, there might have been times when they had lower cost choices, but they generally had to learn to live with volatility in prices.  They liked the low-price times but not the high price times.

Many thought that offering customers rate choices would be better and would make them happy.  That led to the creation of time-of-use, critical peak pricing, and ultimately real time pricing.  Some were delighted, but most found they didn’t know how to make the best choice for their situation.  For many who didn’t understand their hour-by-hour use of electricity, these choices were daunting.

The purists then came up with online energy information systems assuming customers wanted to exercise choice, but once again found that most would not spend the time to understand their choices.

All of this is a lead up to a recent email I received from A&T offering me lots of choices.  Take a close look at this graphic and see that each choice required me to talk to a different branch of AT&T.  That may make sense to many of you because you know how complex choices are in these areas.

But the underlying assumption is that I want that level of choice. I am a tech savvy person; however, I have no idea which of these choices I want to exercise.  AT&T is assuming two things: first that I can choose and that I really want to talk to so many different people.  I don’t.

What’s worse, AT&T now has fractured their customer service response the same way on just about everything and anything.  You call what you think is the customer help line and find out that there is another phone number you must call to get help.   Making matters worse, you waited half an hour in the queue only to find that out. And worse yet, you couldn’t understand what the person one the other end of the call said because that person does not speak English.

No, we don’t want that level of choice.  We want to call an agent for AT&T who can navigate all our needs.  That is the key.  The word agent.  An agent is a person who is empowered to act on behalf of another.  Empowered … wow … someone who has the power to help you.

I wish we had that choice with AT&T.  Other companies seem to manage this well, for instance we have found agents with American Express and Vivant home security profoundly helpful.  They are knowledgeable, reachable, helpful, and speak clearly in English.

The result?  We have been working diligently to get AT&T out of our lives, which is a choice that we clearly understand!

Stop the Insanity

I wondered when people would put the brakes on the progressive nonsense on things like banning natural gas in residential and commercial buildings. It seemed like I was the only one who did the math and declared it insane. I was surprised that the DOE, who not very long ago waged a war on using electricity in homes, had switched their position. Oh … wait a minute … shouldn’t our national research organization simply let the chips fall where they may?

A recent report from New York State does a masterful job of setting these questions back on solid footing: NY’s Electric-Heat Push Faces Cold Reality: Report – Empire Center for Public Policy

This report has a huge amount of carefully curated data that we all should consider. Everyone outside of the Northeast thinks New Yorkers all live in high rise apartments. This report shows the diversity of New York State and its residents. But, even with all this detail and diversity they come to this summary:

In Cold Reality: The Cost and Challenge of Compulsory Home Electrification in New York, Empire Center fellow James Hanley looks at the state’s plan to prohibit homeowners from replacing gas and oil furnaces after 2029 and for them to instead install heat pumps. Homeowners, he explains, face both higher equipment costs and potentially high weatherization costs to accommodate heat pumps, which can operate at lower monthly costs but require better insulation.

Even with extensive state and federal subsidies, Hanley warns, the upfront price-tag of heat pumps and weatherization will likely push homeowners to instead buy low-cost but energy-hungry electric furnaces that will put considerably greater stress on the electric grid—making the state’s overall electrification goals harder to reach.

“This is the fundamental problem at the heart of New York’s command-and-control attempt to restructure its economy to make what amount to barely detectable reductions in global emissions,” said Hanley. “Albany can ban things, but it can’t control how people replace them.”

The simple fact remains. We have a huge job of public education ahead of us, especially for politicians, legislators, and everyone in the news media. They are leading us off the cliff for sure. If we are going to solve the long-term energy and climate questions, we need to move past seemingly simple answers that simply will not work.

Coalitions and Competitors

It seems so logical to assume that tackling major issues should cause good people to work together? How can anyone argue with that? You can’t … until and unless you consider reactions from others. You would think it is obvious that there is another profound truth these coalitions ignore … what will devious people do who see that coalition competing with their devious contrary ideas?

The conflict in the middle east is a profound example. Leaders of both sides may reach some agreement but factions within or without their “parties” see the negotiations themselves as a threat to their agendas. As a result, they violate the agreement’s intents and thereby defeat the peace process.

Think about it, an even more subtle example from recent history. Cigarette companies initially fought the scientific evidence that their product harmed people. They hired lobbyists and bought their own research studies refuting what almost anyone would have known. Cigarettes were bad …even with filters. That stall tactic worked for years, perhaps decades.

But once the cigarette company leaderships knew the jig was up, they formed coalitions with seeming competitors (vaping startups) to buy time to figure out whether their business models would scale and agreed to use public education to stop people from smoking. It was an obvious ruse. They labeled their products indicating they were bad for us. But they kept making them. They bought up or started their own e-cigarette aka vaping companies once it was clear that people who stopped smoking were indeed now using these ideas.

The energy utility industry has a parallel. When Edison commercialized electric light, the natural gas industry that had been providing energy for light at the time saw his invention as a competitor to the use of natural gas for light. What did they do? They decided to back Edison’s commercialization.

As we go through yet another cycle of national politics and one promising to continue to include many very expensive solutions to the claimed climate emergency, watch how the players position themselves. There are so many nonsensical and whimsical ideas in the mix: air capture, hydrogen, banning ICE, banning natural gas in new home and business construction, and even fusion reactors.

You will hear claims similar to Edison: this or that is dead … to be replaced by that or this. You will see seemingly amazing startups similar to the way cryptocurrency took the headlines for a time. There is another clue here. Do you know what cryptography is? It is the technique of obfuscating or coding data, ensuring that only the person who is meant to see the information–and has the key to break the code.

It is the deliberate attempt to keep anyone but those who are “in on the secrets” from profiting from the situations at hand. What seems like a coalition is in fact a deep conspiracy.

Be afraid … be very afraid!