Ten years ago, Susan Davis¹ introduced me to the notion of “both…and”, aka “both/and”. It may be a measure of cultural imprinting, or a slow paced intellect, that it took me some time to fully grasp the full meaning. “Both, and…” is another way of saying, “You are both right”, an observation Solarex CEO, Harvey Forest, was fond of making in the midst of heated debates among his management team members. But it goes further. It is essentially a call to integrate, not differentiate. And wouldn’t it be a relief just now if our Congress started to do a little more integrating and a little less differentiating.
Those of us who got our energy education in the 70s were steeped in dueling LCOE analyses that, rather academically in retrospect, tried to determine if a coal-based US energy future would be a tenth of a cent more or less expensive than a nuclear-based future. In this context, President Obama’s “all of the above” mantra would have been prophetic, but at the time no one would have been happy with it. Oil was highly problematic. Natural gas looked as if it had no long term future. Renewable energy research hadn’t started. Coal and nuclear each had big liabilities that were easier to point out than do anything about. The debate was about their economic benefits, and nothing else, at least among engineers.
Fast forward a couple decades, i.e. about the time PG&E wrote off its world class R&D program as an unnecessary and unaffordable expense. (Perhaps PG&E felt the same way about “the vision thing” as the country’s incumbent president at the time.)
Carl Weinberg was PG&E’s R&D manager before the write off. He had popularized the “no silver bullet, only silver buckshot” metaphor. It’s basically shorthand for the observation that viable and useful energy solutions were, even then, tending to proliferate. They needed to be integrated rather than left on the side of the road.
After California pulled the rug from under the renewable industries it launched, John White, in a more focused call for inclusive thinking, commented that commercially established California renewable companies lobbying for deployment incentives for themselves and against those for fledgling solar PV companies amounted to “an industry eating its young”.
So, fast forward again to now. What is the full meaning of “both, and…” and how does it apply to advocacy and renewable integration today?
In my work these days I am privileged to spend quality time in seemingly opposing camps. I attend meetings of leading solar advocates, specifically advocates of solar PV. Some of them prefer their PV big, some small, and some medium. I attend meetings of natural gas technologists, advocates and regulators. They are skeptical at best about renewable energy of any sort, especially wind and solar. I meet with local advocates for clean energy, and I meet with groups whose interests are aligned with the concerns of large energy corporations and their advocacy arms. Finally, I meet with local groups concerned with advocating for a moral, ethical and practical response to climate change.
I find I can easily respect and sympathize with all the work and concerns I encounter in all cases, but it is hard not to notice how easily passionate, purposeful people can become attached to the focus of their work or advocacy as if it were Carl Weinberg’s silver bullet. This tendency can manifest as a view of other actually complementary purposes as sinister and needing a good dose of negative advocacy.
I’m no stranger to advocating for specific technologies. I spent six years as the de facto US government advocate for what is now called concentrating solar power, and I still have a soft spot for that option and the dedicated, talented and now finally growing community of people who brought it forward and are committed to its success.
Advocacy has its place and purpose. Like other missions it needs the best its practitioners can give. But there are boundaries which should not be crossed. The goal should be healthy enterprise, empowered by collaboration and integration, not by domination and annihilation of rival efforts.
There is certainly a moral dimension in our energy use and the things we do as a society to supply it. But treating pieces and groupings of pieces in the overall energy puzzle as if they were a sect or denomination in an energy religion evokes the fable of the blind men and the elephant. In a jigsaw puzzle there are no good and bad pieces, just pieces that don’t have much meaning unless they all fit together.
I salute all solar advocates, including those who concern themselves as much with the negatives of incumbent energy industries and electricity suppliers as with the positives of solar. I especially applaud the growing numbers of ordinary people doing the quiet and unheralded work of making solar real for more and more people, communities and countries. To an important extent, their work has always depended on effective advocacy by those gifted enough to engage in it.
I also respect the factions within the solar community that advocate for alternative solar technical solutions, many or most of which are likely to find their place in an integrated and cost-optimized energy system. The purposeful passions that economic and political competition encourages should not be discouraged. But as the new Catholic pope says of the signature moral issues within his church, context is important.
Renewable integration also needs advocates, and that is why IRESN exists. Please support our work, share your ideas and questions with us, and let us know how we can be most helpful to you.
-- Gerry Braun
©2013 The IRES Network
1 President of CapitalMissions.com
2 Levelized Cost of Energy