By Donella Meadows
–January 30, 1991–
The energy policy the nation has been waiting for — and, some would say, fighting for — is about to be unveiled by the Bush administration. It contains no surprises. It emphasizes supply more than efficiency. It calls for market mechanisms, not regulation or taxes. Oil, coal, and nuclear companies will find nothing in it to upset them. Environmentalists will hate it.
But at the core of the National Energy Strategy, as it is called, there is a surprise and a hope. The surprise is that the analysis behind the strategy is comprehensive and fair. The hope is that this analysis can foster a reasoned energy debate — and maybe even a reasoned energy policy.
Every policy is shaped by two forces: background analysis and foreground politics. The politics of energy are well known. Long before the Bush White House looked at a single statistic it was committed to nuclear power, to supply strategies, to market incentives, and to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Those biases came from ideology and the pressures of vested interests.
Bush politics were predictable, but not Bush analysis. One of the reasons the administration has taken so long to come up with this Strategy is that its analysis has been serious and thorough. The process started with public hearings around the country, at which opinions on all sides were aired. At the same time basic statistics were being assembled in the Department of Energy (DOE).
It’s one thing to gather numbers and opinions about energy. It’s another to put together all that information and make sense of it. That requires a tremendous amount of what the DOE staff calls “bean-counting.” The beans to be counted include all existing sources of energy, potential sources of energy, existing and potential energy demand, pollution emissions, conservation options, and much more.
Only a computer can keep track of all these beans. DOE has resurrected, updated, and expanded several computer models, most of which originate from the energy-crisis days of the Ford and Carter administrations, to do the job.
These are not computer models in the mythic “supermachine will now tell you what to do” mode. They are essentially big scratch pads to hold and organize information. Some contain the details of the oil sector, or the transportation fleet, or greenhouse gas emissions. One model pulls the detailed sectors together and makes them consistent — so that, for example, all supply sectors compete realistically for investment money. Or so that a rise in the price of imported oil starts a move toward substitutes, and those substitutes come on line only as fast as the economy can actually finance and build them.
In a refreshing break from the short-term focus of most government policy, the DOE models look as far ahead as the year 2030. Any energy discussion has to do that, to include the lifetimes of present fuel reserves and capital plant and the time it takes to bring on new sources, whether solar or nuclear. The models also capture important feedbacks, like the possibility that a strong conservation policy might decrease the price of energy so much that people would start wasting energy again. The computer models also make a more balanced attempt than the White House does to include options on both the supply and the demand side.
But, of course, even computer models are riddled with oversimplifications. They are biased. (For example, DOE calculates air pollutants, but not nuclear wastes.) They are as weak as their assumptions, many of which are inherently uncertain. It would be better to have access to Truth, but that we will never have. We only have models, in computers or in our heads.
The DOE modelers recognize these limitations. They do not claim their models can Predict or Pronounce, only that they can explore assumptions and test uncertainties. For example, no one knows how much oil lies under Alaska, but the models can try reasonable guesses and see what difference they would make (not much, in any case).
No model can tell us what to do, but an honest one centered on physical facts can tell us that some things are impossible. So, for example, the DOE energy models won’t convert the car fleet to 40 mpg within a year, or construct 100 nuclear power plants without raising the capital for them — mental-model tricks that are regularly invoked in the policy debate. The models show that the nation cannot be run by solar or nuclear energy within forty years. Nor can any policy free us from oil imports (except, perhaps, strong efficiency measures, which the DOE hasn’t tested).
In fact the analysts find no “silver bullets.” Every favorite scheme, from gas deregulation to methanol to carpooling, has a role to play. None is the full answer.
Another thing a model can’t do is answer questions that are never asked. The Bush administration never asked its analysts to explore some of the most interesting questions. What would be the effect of a carbon tax? How much could efficiency be increased? Could a combination of efficiency and renewables meet our needs, and if so, how fast? The White House thought it already knew the answers to question like these.
Computer models are not to be trusted, no more than mental models. They begin to be credible only when they’re openly available, for all points of view to examine and criticize, to correct, to try assumptions and ask questions. The DOE is trying to do just that — to make its models available to critics. If the White House lets it happen, both the computer models and our mental models should move toward greater realism. That won’t happen soon enough to help this year’s National Energy Strategy, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991