The law of unintended consequences

24 May 2016 | Ali Naini

Churchill is quoted as once saying: “I am preparing my impromptu remarks”. It seems that decisions about long-term green investments are sometimes made without such forethought, delivering some unintended results.

For example, when the US decided to support mass production of bioethanol it was not long before scientists started raising the alarm. Apparently, unlike tropical Brazil where crops grow easily, in the US the energy used in irrigating maize more than offset the carbon reduction benefits of using bioethanol.

Nearer to home, the UK government’s incentives to improve residential building insulation seemed a very sensible way of saving energy. Now doctors are reportedly complaining about increased respiratory problems arising from poorly ventilated homes. Could this second order effect not have been foreseen?

In the Turquoise office, the lights were changed last winter from incandescent bulbs to LEDs. Great stuff, except that we found that the temperature of the office dropped dramatically. It turned out that the lights had been serving as our heating system. So we asked the building managers to turn on the heating, only to discover that up to that point our building was considered efficient enough not to need a heating system (just cooling) ! In the middle of winter, any other team would have been tempted to install (small, inefficient) electric heaters but I am proud to say that as green-minded people we resisted and just shivered quietly and waited for spring.

I realise that it is not easy to foresee second (and third) order effects of changes. However, it sometimes seems that there is little attempt to do so when faced with a campaign by often well-intentioned lobby groups in favour of particular environmental policies.

A lack of adequate analysis can also result in inaction where change may be needed. For example, governments around the world seem to be hanging their hat on electric vehicles as the solution to emissions from cars. Sure enough, an electric motor powered by electricity generated from renewable sources is the cleanest method we know of running a vehicle. However, few people seem to be willing to do the sums about the length of time required for car engine production lines to be adapted to manufacture electric motors, costs to fall sufficiently to make EVs affordable, additional renewable generation to be built, new electricity distribution and charging points put in place, and so on. As a result, policy makers are not focusing on the the millions of conventional cars that will be produced in the interim, by one estimate peaking only in 2040 at about 120m per year (compared to 80m per annum now).

Similarly, I keep hearing the idea of using the batteries in electric cars as a means of storing electricity for the grid. Given that I also hear that the battery is currently the Achilles heel of any EV, needing to be swapped out at least once during the life of the car, is that really feasible? Before any policy decision is made that assumes such an arrangement, I very much hope someone bothers to test the theory with battery makers, car manufacturers, utilities and car owners.

This is all a long way of saying that perhaps we need to examine our green initiatives with a bit more care, testing the feasibility of our primary assumptions and checking second order effects. One organisation I know that tries to tackle such issues is the Energy Research Partnership (www.ErpUK.org ), a think tank comprising public and private sector players from the energy sector. We need more such institutions, and we need to consult them more frequently.

Ali Naini

Managing Director

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