Engineers are rarely utopians. From professional experience, or the intuitive grasp that helped draw them into the profession in the first place, they understand that before deciding what to do, you have to figure out how to do it, to make sure it’s possible given the inherent trade-offs embedded in reality. For instance the maxim “strong, light and cheap – pick any two”. Or that if you massively convert your economy to electrification, you’re going to need a staggering quantity of materials you may have trouble getting. Which brings us to a talk by Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute called “The Energy Transition Delusion: Inescapable Mineral Realities”. The title is discouraging and no mistake. But he’s asking people to think carefully about whether it’s possible because, if it’s not, the attempt would be disastrous. Leaving open the question whether, if he’s right, the utopian zealots will care.
Mills is actually trained as a physicist. So arguably he’s a “climate scientist”, or would be if he said the woke things. But partly due to an early career in mining he thinks and talks like an engineer. He worries about entropy. He worries about scarcity. He worries about efficiency.
By the way, this matter of choosing between various desirable features is not just engineering. There used to be a maxim in the Soviet bloc “smart, honest and a Communist – pick any two”. And there are many other forms of this triangle including “Quick, cheap and reliable” for, say, a transit system, or “quick, easy and tasty” for a meal. They are everywhere because reality is tricky.
To some that point seems obvious. But to others it’s apparently not just obscure, it sounds like a plot to sabotage their glorious vision out of greed or some even worse motive. And so there’s a disconnect in public debate, on which Thomas Sowell wrote with exceptional clarity in A Conflict of Visions between people who prioritize motives and those who prioritize methods.
Mills, being on the method side, has no problem with the motives of the transitioners. At a number of points in the talk he insists that he’s not criticizing the goal including saying up front, barely a minute in, that “The key issue with the energy transition rhetoric and policies is not one about aspirations, which I’m not going to talk about. It’s not one about structural possibilities, which are non-trivial. But rather, it’s about minerals and mining…” As in, what quantity of minerals would be needed to meet the aspiration of converting advanced economies primarily to electricity, on the generating side, via the distribution network, and then in the batteries and other devices needed at the point of use.
Booooring – at least by today’s standards. The talk is nearly 47 minutes long and full of charts, which some people find eloquent and thrilling and others, well, don’t. But a major problem with the whole “energy transition” is that it’s being run, and pushed, by people who don’t like charts or what charts tell them, especially on this file, and moreover generally don’t understand them.
For instance, Mills shows global energy consumption in 2022, in which wind and solar comprise just 3%, dwarfed by the oldest energy source other than muscles, wood, still at 10%. And enthusiasts may well cry sure, for now, thanks in part to mental inertia or worse but look, the share is growing. It was basically nothing as late as 2002. It will keep growing. Problem solved.
Or is it? As Mills points out, 3% is a lot in a world as big as ours. But it’s not a sign that we’ve made a transition. On the contrary, it’s a sign that the transition remains an aspiration. And in his view, it’s also proof that transitions are “slow, and difficult, and expensive” especially since humanity has spent an estimated $5 trillion directly on wind and solar in the last 15 years, and probably as much again indirectly, to get only this far.
Slow, difficult and expensive are not words you frequently hear from boosters of the Green New Deal. Though as we’ve said before, it would be quite consistent to admit that it will be tough and insist that it’s necessary anyway because not stopping warming is worse. (We don’t agree, we just say it’s not logically unsound.) The thing is, they don’t tend to think in these terms, so they miss what’s coming next, in the talk and in reality.
For instance they could say well, $10 trillion bought us 3 percent so simple arithmetic says another $320 trillion would get us to 99%. And money well spent. But that’s where they miss the point of the charts. The more you go after the components of the new energy economy, the more you run up against rising costs due to physical constraints on availability.
Mills says that going from 3% to 10% would not be a transition either. And while he does concede that it would be a remarkable achievement, he then he goes all engineer and says he wants to focus on the mundane question “where do the materials come from?” rather than, say, how happy they would make us if they suddenly appeared. And, he adds, it’s not about how much energy there is, in all sorts of forms. It’s about the practicalities of harnessing it.
We won’t reprint the entire speech. If it’s the sort of thing you like you’ll already have bookmarked it. But if it’s not, if you find cobalt in batteries insufferably dull and distracting, we urge you to sit through it anyway, and ask yourself whether it shows a side of the matter you had not come to grips with and really should.
At one point he returns to the discouraging word “delusion” in his title and says “By delusion I don’t mean people are delusional about their aspirations. I think they’re suffering some modest delusion about what the possibilities are in the mining sector. I mean, the whole thing distills to mining.” Again, it’s the sort of petty objection liable to infuriate Sowell’s “unconstrained” visionaries, who see a utopian future unfolding only to have some crank from a right-wing think-tank start quibbling about graphite and rare earths and a 700-7000% increase in a decade or two. (People focused on practicalities often find it easier to be courteous toward those who don’t get the math than those focused on aspirations do toward those who don’t get the vision, though courtesy is in deplorably short supply on all sides nowadays.) But what if it’s true anyway?
After all, as Mills observes, we know a lot about mining. It’s the oldest industry in the world. We have been mining copper since before writing was invented. So we can make some reasonable projections about it… if we care to. As we should because of the price of unreason.
Philip K. Dick was neither a physicist nor an engineer. He was a science fiction writer. But when he wrote that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away” he vaulted philosophically right into that august company. And if you’re planning to reengineer the future, whether the energy system, the entire economy, or the entire society, you’d better believe it.