Yesterday I attended a daylong, academy awards-style event in San Francisco that was doling out cash prizes to green tech entrepreneurs who’ve been competing all year for the funds. Given we’ve been talking about multi-million dollar ARPA-E projects, the prizes were comparatively pocket change, in the neighborhood of $50,000 with a grand prize of a quarter million, and the companies tiny. The whole experience brought to bear the phrase “small is beautiful,” but maybe not in all the ways I’d hoped. continue »
Back in the 1980s when the US and the USSR had intercontinental missiles pointed at each other, the world seemed uncomfortably close to realizing one of the dumbest imaginable outcomes. One finger pushing one button somewhere would set off a sequence of events that assured total destruction everywhere. It was a game no one could win, and, in retrospect, maybe that’s why no one ever really played.
A common trope among those bemoaning this weird frozen state of affairs, in which absolutely everything was at stake, was, “If only aliens would invade, we’d stop this nonsense.” If we just had a common threat, the thinking went, we’d see our respective grievances as the small potatoes they really were. We’d stop linking the continued existence of civilization to arguments about the relative merits of communism and capitalism.
So when the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, there was a collective sigh of relief. We seemed to have transitioned from a politics structured around mutually assured destruction to… whatever we call this. The point is, the “if I can’t have it, I’ll nuke it all” option seems to have been (mostly) taken off the table.
But we got our alien invasion anyway — the threat posed to all by human-induced climate change. And, like it or not, we’re now testing the soundness of the reasoning behind the scenario so many wished for. Will a new kind of threat (climate change) lead to a new kind of cooperation?
In my last post I lamented ARPA-E’s total emphasis on hold-in-your-hand gadgetry, and the absence of research on less tangible energy innovation. Of course, in classic blogger tradition, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what that might involve — just some vague notions about alternatives to GDP and social experiments, whatever those are.
So I bounced the notion off my fellow Wired Science writer Alexis Madrigal, whose book on the history of green technology is coming out next year. He pointed me at Ryan Wise, an electricity market expert at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who in turn sent me to Ed Vine, an LBNL energy analyst. And Vine had a message: there’s indeed a great deal of non-tech-based energy research out there.
“We’ve traditionally focused more on the widgets,” said Vine. “But now the other side is getting more attention.”
Vine referred me to a study that came out in October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on the superficially unsexy subject of energy-consuming behaviors and how they can be changed. The researchers estimated that small, eminently achievable changes in everyday behavior — carpooling, sealing windows, and so on — could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by more than seven percent.
That might not sound like much, but it’s equivalent to the yearly emissions of France, or of the U.S. iron, steel and aluminum industries, with petroleum refinement thrown in to boot. continue »
Maybe it’s because I am writing this from the west coast, far from the cynical lens of my adopted home of New York City. Maybe a few days of drinking the water out here and seeing the sun has me thinking positive. Whatever it is, I am going to side with Victoria on the ARPA/American obsession with technology question, which Brandon brought up: I think ARPA is an indication that the administration is using technology for the right reasons (for the most part).
Sure, I take some issue with giving 10 percent of its monies to algal biofuel projects, which many reports find will be difficult to scale up. But, to Victoria’s assessment of ARPA’s first round of investments (that it’s targeting projects that are already well under way, but may need a funding boost to get past a particular obstacle): She’s right. At this point, these are the bets with the best odds.
Warning, gross oversimplification to follow: I see our pursuit of technological innovation to be two-pronged. We are either striving for convenience (gadgets, informational technology) or reversing problems that crop up in natural systems (like, biotech). Most projects within the climate change space fall into these two broad buckets: they seek to make fundamental changes to human processes (by producing less waste that’s noxious to the planet) or they seek to put a band-aid over the problem.
This summer, several sources seemed to indicate that the bogeyman of geoengineering was beginning to fade, (not necessarily that the idea was gaining favor, but that there was reluctant acceptance). Geoengineering is the active gaming of the earth’s natural systems to cover up the effects of climate change. The American Meteorological Society endorsed research into these sorts of schemes, such as flooding the atmosphere with sulfate particles to reflect the sun’s rays or bulking up clouds by having ships on the ocean shoot water into the sky. In the U.K., the Institution of Mechanical Engineers suggested geoengineering as a way to buy time (pdf) to solve our energy problems and polluting ways, and the Royal Society concluded these options should be researched, at least at a small scale, alongside more efforts aimed at “mitigating or adapting” to global warming.
Mitigation and adaptation, however, is where the Obama White House is focusing its efforts, and that’s a good thing. The work its funding, as Victoria points out, has the ability to bring about both infrastructural change–which in turn will force the hand on social change. It also has the potential to create new industries, something a geoengineering solution would not do; it’d be more along the lines of a bridge construction project. Back in April, Obama’s science czar said the administration was not ruling out geoengineering, but it’s nice to see that ARPA and the government, in general, is not yet squandering its money on these sorts of efforts. Maybe that’s because, as an Atlantic article this summer indicated, one rich entrepreneur/renegade could fund and implement one of these band-aid solutions without the cooperation of actual nations.
As we turn the corner toward Copenhagen and hear rumblings that a meaningful consensus to fixing our climate change ills is unlikely to happen, I wonder how far we are from ARPA going from E (for energy) to G (for geoengineering). I’m happy we didn’t just throw our hands up prematurely and go for convenience. With any luck, one of these projects just needed a few million dollars to get on the fast track to market.
Typing that last sentence felt good. This glass-half-full stuff ain’t so bad.
By Nikhil Swaminathan
Geoengineering photo by illuminating9_11
OK, I’ll bite. I’ll tell you what’s good about ARPA-E, and counter the arguments of my Hive Mind brethren who lament the addictive high of technology, the flawed nature of human beings, and our entrepreneur-unfriendly system to point out the many deficiencies of APRA-E solutions. I’d argue that by way of technology, ARPA-E is funding life-changing concepts that could be the path to social and psychological improvement.
ARPA-E projects aren’t just about swapping hydrocarbons for photons, there’s a recipe for social revolution tucked inside some of those technologies. And while I am aware that almost every technology-fundamentalist argument holds out this glittering carrot (social change) while ignoring the umpteen narratives of social destruction spawned by technology (the atomic bomb pretty much topping that list), frankly, as Sandra duly pointed out, none of the funded ARPA-E technologies are as novel as nuclear fission (which exposes another set of problems, as she discusses). continue »