Saturday, November 26, 2011

Energy Planning:

What's Reasonable?

I was startled to see an article recently about Japan's plans to revise the country's energy policy. I knew that Japan had stated its intent to revise its energy plans. The surprise was not that fact, but rather, the time period proposed. Japan's new Trade Minister, Yukio Edano, stated that they would form a panel under the energy advisory committee to "probe a road Japan will take over the next 100 or 200 years."

One or two hundred years??? I have seen 5-year plans, and 10-year plans, and in certain areas of endeavor, I have seen plans 10- or 20- or even 50-year plans. But 100 or 200 years?

Two-hundred years ago, 1811, I'm not sure everyone thought the United States would exist in 10 years, let alone 200 years. And none of the technology we take for granted today was even remotely near to being developed.

One-hundred years ago, early automobiles were on the road and the Wright brothers had demonstrated flight, but I don't think too many people would have believed that either automobiles or airplanes would become major modes of transportation. And nuclear power? The use of the word nucleus to refer to the center of an atom hadn't even become standard terminology yet.

A little more than 60 years ago, my father tells me he built a TV from an RCA kit, and it was the very first one in his neighborhood. People used to crowd around our kitchen table to watch with fascination whatever limited programming was available on the small, flickering black-and-white screen. Who would have guessed that a TV would come to be considered practically a requirement for modern living, and that most households would have multiple TVs, and that they would have large, color images and hundreds of channels of programming?

It was just 60 years ago that the EBR-I put electricity onto the grid. Look what's happened to that technology in 60 years.

And just think of all the gadgets that we now can't live without and how they have evolved, even in just the last couple of decades: the telephone--and then the cell phone, and then the smart phone; large computers in laboratories--and then the computer on every desk at home and at work, and laptops and tablets in every briefcase; etc.

So, had we made a 200-year plan in 1811 or a 100-year plan in 1911, what would we have assumed for our energy sources and our energy demands in 2011?

I know that a country like Japan can't completely shift its energy patterns in a very short time-frame, and therefore that a 20-year plan, or even a 50-year plan, won't show the "final" outcome that some may wish to see. Nevertheless, it is really not meaningful to present the public and the decision-makers with a plan that spans such long periods of time. Even if such a plan is reviewed and readjusted periodically, it does not contribute any more certainty to have a 200-year plan than it does to have a good 20-year plan.

I would urge Japan to adopt a shorter-term plan that can be adjusted to respond to new developments and new issues. What if some new consumer technology ramps up electricity demand a lot more than we anticipate today? What if rare earth limitations restrict today's plans to build windmills? What if climate change significantly alters wind patterns, or cloud cover, or river flows, or sea level? What if fusion is developed in the next 50 years?

The panel may not be able to show the complete transition they would like to show in a period of a few decades, but whatever they do propose is likely to be more realistic and achievable. It seems to me that it is far better to have a short term plan that is realistic for the period it covers and that is periodically revisited to look ahead to the next few decades and extend as the potential needs and opportunities become clear, rather than presenting the public with a long-term plan that can only be regarded as pure fiction after the initial couple of decades.

While this may seem like a distinction without a difference--after all, in either case, the plans need to be revisited--the difference is that it is dishonest to tell the public that the problem is solved by a plan that extends such a long time and I expect that such dishonesty will eventually cause the public to lose faith in the plan altogether. A short-term plan can have an aspirational goal, but it should not be in terms of specific technologies so much as it should be in terms of broader objectives, such as reduced CO2 emissions. More importantly, the initial plan should acknowledge that it addresses only the first increment of the process of getting there.

I realize it is tempting to be able to show the public that the government has a plan that provides a complete transition. But such a plan would not, in the long run, provide Japan any better prospects than a shorter-term plan with a solid basis.



  1. Gail. You are right. But I see too many plans that say: "well, we have a 80 year supply of natural gas, so why worry?" Eighty years isn't very long. But if every plan is a five-year plan, eighty years is irrelevant.

  2. 200 yrs maybe too long. But 100 yrs would be ok. It doesn't have to be an absolute plan. It should be a plan that take into account different possibilities like extremely high prices for fossil fuels. So it should be plan that promotes diversity in energy supply.