Backward compatibility in energy technology

If you’ve ever worked for a manufacturing or software development company, you’re probably familiar with the concept of backward compatibility. The basic idea is that any new product needs to be able to utilize the old product’s hardware and/or software so that development costs are kept down and so that current customers can migrate to your new product more easily. Most people are most familiar with this idea from their experience with Microsoft Office products – when you upgrade Word from on version to another, you don’t have to re-write all your documents – the new version can open and manipulate the old version just as easily as it can a newly created document.

But while backward compatibility is a laudable goal for any product, there inevitably comes a point when a company’s old hardware or software is so out of date that the only thing to do is develop an entirely new approach that’s smaller, faster, lower power, more features, and tuned for the new markets of today rather than the markets of 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. It’s one of the hardest decisions a company ever has to make, because it carries with it a great deal of monetary risk, especially if the company can’t come up with a handy conversion tool like the one that Microsoft Word 2007 uses to convert older 2003-format .doc files into XML-formatted documents. But sometimes abandoning the old in favor of the new is absolutely necessary.

Ever since former Vice President Al Gore’s energy speech last week at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, I’ve been struggling with both if and how I could come to terms with his call for the United States to abandon all carbon-based energy sources over the next ten years. After all, abandoning coal, natural gas, and oil entirely over that short a period and transitioning to solar, wind, geothermal, and other zero-carbon energy sources strikes me initially as dramatically beyond the possible. So does building a smart transmission line system that links the entire country together and transmits electricity from where it’s sunny, windy, and where the ground is hot to the U.S. cities and towns that need the electricity, although it’s certain that the country desperately needs better transmission infrastructure.

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that Gore’s proposal, wildly optimistic as it seems to be, actually represents a call for the U.S. to abandon backward compatibility with our existing energy systems – electricity and transportation from carbon-based fuels. We need new technologies (non-carbon energy sources such as geothermal, wind, solar, tidal/wave, etc.), smart new interconnections (new DC electricity transmission lines linked in a smart national grid), improved power efficiency (a wholesale tightening of building codes, removing gas guzzlers from the road and replacing them with fuel efficient vehicles), and so on.

Whenever a company chooses to ignore backward compatibility, they take a major risk – a company is never sure that the customer will buy their new product, so they only do it when the new product is so dramatically better than the old product(s) that the customers can’t help but be wowed. In Gore’s words, “[w]e’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.”

Avoiding backward compatibility in this case breaks all three of those issues. We won’t need to borrow (as much) money from on of our global competitors, China. We won’t need to buy oil from our nations that are, or support, our enemies, such as Venezuela, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. And we won’t be burning carbon fuels that emit gases that are heating up the Earth.

Companies usually expect a 10x to 100x improvement in price or performance to justify abandoning backward compatibility in a product line. The good that would result from abandoning our old energy sources makes 100x look paltry by comparison.

10 replies »

  1. While i agree that backward compatibility with our creaking infrastructure should probably be abandoned, i’m still not convinced that Gore’s proposal is anything close to realistic.

    Moreover, i’m not too keen on changing one form of centralization for another…mostly because i think that industrial centralization is a root cause of our environmental mess. Of course, i don’t know exactly what Gore means. And thats another beef. He’s never very clear when he makes his proclamations. For a guy known for boring people to tears with his wonkishness, the ethereal nature of his plans frightens me.

    Just how much energy would we have to generate to not only meet new demands but replace all the existing plants? And how much more would have to be generated to (and conserved) to power out stupid transit methods? According to the government, we use 9.25 million bbls/day just for vehicular transportation. That’s a lot of energy.

    But my biggest question is: who’s going to control this new energy infrastructure?

  2. Thanks, Brian. The reporter in me now asks: How much will it cost, and who’s gonna pay for it? I must admit, Lex’s question about control troubles me as well.

  3. Good questions, Denny, and Gore has offered no answers, at least not in that particular speech. Most of the sites I’ve been reading about his speech were focused on how his speech was like Kennedy’s man on the moon speech, and Kennedy didn’t really offer much beyond grand vision in that speech either.

    On the other hand, Kennedy was President of the United States at the time, so when he said it was going to happen, it was going to happen. Gore isn’t President, neither is Obama, and I wouldn’t trust McCain to follow through on this one.

    I don’t know who will control it, although I suspect it’ll be the same groups that control energy now, simply because they have the monetary resources to do so. Not a great solution, really, but not likely to be any worse than the current situation.

  4. The proposal already incorporates backward compatibility. The key to conversion is to recognize that almost all devises associated with modern life run on electricity. How the electricity is produced is irrelevant to operating any given device as long as the frequency, voltage, and amperage match. The frequency is the most critical (60 Hz in the US), because voltage and amperage can be adjusted by transformers. Even direct current devices, such a radios, convert alternating house current to direct current by using full wave rectifiers. Upgrading the electical grid is a key infrastructure investment that must be made. At some point, automobiles will most likely use electrical motors and servos to propel the vehicle, but the primary means of generating the power will change over time: ay going from current hybrid technology to electric motors driven by pertoleum engines, to fuel cell power generation, to solar cell – fuel cell hybrids. In each of these cases, the direct propulsion is by electric motors, but the primary power source changes. Railroads already have been using diesel powered generators to produce electrical power to run the actual propulsion system, brakes, and all sensors for years. The only ones who must change are those who supply the electrical power, the automobile companies, and other transportation system. Eventually, other systems, such as household heating, can be converted to operate off a different primary energy source. I expect the full conversion process to take longer than ten years for some categories. But in reality, with the eras of post-peak oil and global warming looming there really will not be much of choice as far as converting aweay from fossil fuels. Oil is expected to peak first, if it has not already done so, natural gas is expected to peak sometime around 2017, and coal is expected to peak soon after. Those who advocate nuclear power ignore studies done for the govenrments of Switzerland and France which indicate that there are not enough high grade uranium ore to supply everyone with electrical power. An fusion power has been the source of the future for the last sixty years, and no one has yet made a working generator from that source. At some point in the face of shortages, the available alternative technologies (solar, wind, and others) must be used if some semblence of modern life is to be preserved. RIght now, Denmark generates 25 % of the country’s electrical power from wind. The Netherlands and Germany are moving in that direction by building large, offshore windmill farms. There is movement in this country towards large windmill installations, particularly on the Great Plains. I frequently see windmill components being hauled on the freeways around where I live.

  5. “Bold calls for action” are well and good. But they don’t mean jack unless they come with some sort of realistic plan for that action.

  6. Those who advocate nuclear power ignore studies done for the govenrments of Switzerland and France which indicate that there are not enough high grade uranium ore to supply everyone with electrical power.

    Not true. There are some nuclear advocates, myself among them, who recognize that we’ll have to fall back on lower-grade ores and very likely go to breeder reactors as well. And that requires solving a host of nonproliferation problems in addition to the waste disposal issues (although breeder reactors tend to produce less waste, as do 3rd generation reactors).

    I personally prefer other alternatives, but I’m not yet convinced that we can get them online fast enough to avoid needing to build large numbers of additional nuclear plants.

  7. Dan, you’re right, and I’m still waiting to see what that plan will be. I watched Gore’s speech on YouTube and wanted to be inspired to quit my job and go to work for a solar, wind, or geothermal energy company the next day. I didn’t. Whether that was skepticism or cynicism is a question I haven’t yet answered myself.

  8. I would like to see some quantification of how much energy we can produce (though i suppose that “gather” is a better verb for renewable energies) put up against our current consumption of energy and projected increases. This is particularly true of converting our vehicular transportation to electric. As all for it as i am, i have a feeling that we don’t see these numbers because they don’t add up…at least not yet.

    Brian, do you have any thoughts on the small, self-contained reactors being developed?

    Has anyone done a study on how much longer the supply of nuclear fuel would last if we used all the stuff sitting in warheads?