The Great Leap Sideways

Thought and action are often powered by metaphor. The flagship metaphor of The High-Tech Imperative is that of a chicken embryo exponentially growing while unsustainably consuming its rapidly dwindling food supply. When the chick is growing most rapidly, the endowment runs out. At this point the parallel between the chick and mankind runs out: the chick makes the mandatory transition smoothly, while it is not clear whether and how civilization as we know it will make it at all.

So far the chick metaphor of Buckminster Fuller. In The Leap [1] Chris Turner has an alternative metaphor as theme. It is that of a fast, comfortable train running on bad track that is rapidly getting worse. So much so that it becomes noticeable, at least to some of the passengers. Some of these actually dare to look outside and notice that the track is running along a chasm. The track close ahead is worse. In the vaguely discernable distance the track seems to go right into the chasm. On the other side there is a solid-looking track, one that curves away from the chasm. Turner's point is that business as usual cannot get the train to run on that other track. A radical change, a discontinuity is needed; hence "The Leap". The word is reminiscent of chairman Mao's "Leap". Like his, Turner's has to be Great Leap, but Sideways rather than Forward.

Throughout the book Turner reviews sustainable energy technologies and argues that technology is not the barrier that stands in the way of the Great Leap Sideways. Rather, it is a lack of vision and of a new way of thinking. To illustrate this Turner goes back to the New York of 1819. At the time it was not more important than several other cities in the United States, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New Orleans.

Traveling to Europe was an expensive and haphazard undertaking: one could do no better than to travel to New York and find lodgings for an indefinite amount of time, all the while scanning the newspapers and visiting offices of shipping companies. For a shipping company it was counter to all that was common sense to allow a vessel to depart with a vacant cabin or with space in the hold. Yet this was exactly Jeremiah Thompson's idea. He convinced partners to join him in a new kind of shipping venture, one that announced a schedule of future departures and set sail on the dates advertised, full or not full. After a short period of painfully underloaded voyages, the Black Ball Line had all the traffic it could handle. Before long its competitors had taken notice and it had become inconceivable that it had ever been otherwise. Thompson's idea had completed the Three Stages of Truth as noted by Arthur Schopenhauer: ridicule, opposition, and acceptance as self-evident.

In spite of the dire consequences of not making the Leap, Turner starts off with a survey of our predicament that is sufficiently brutal to rattle the most complacent reader. Then one would expect a rallying cry, a call for mobilization of all resources, resulting in austerities not seen since WW II, so as to avert the emergency.

Instead, much of the rest of the book is devoted to developing the idea that thinking-out-of-the-box can transform traffic in cities in a way that saves energy and enhances pleasure. A pioneer example is Copenhagen, so much so, that apparently "Copenhagenization" has emerged as term for the process. Accordingly there are pages of praises of drinking coffee in the sun on sidewalks (in Copenhagen? fur coat and boots, I guess). His analysis is apparently that prospects of austerity will have no effect while giving sybarites the prospect of enhanced pleasure has a chance of getting things going.

The subtitle is similarly upbeat, and aimed at readers of the Business Section in the Globe and Mail: "How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy". Accordingly there is much about the business opportunities in wind and solar energy. Again, I must admit, a better chance of getting things moving than dire-sounding rants. But instead of launching into yet another success story with dutifully supplied names of CEOs, CTOs, CFOs, Turner could have inquired into the energy that went into making the tons of steel for a turbine and what that energy would have cost at a sustainable price; then calculated how many years it would take to pay this back. This may be good news; I hope so. I just want to see the figures.

Turner does not address the important question of what percentage of total electric power required can come from wind energy. On page 316.5 (paper edition) he mentions that on Bornholm only half of the generated electricity is used "because of the intermittency problem". It may have been planned that way -- the data must have been available before ordering the turbines. Or was it just plain old stupidity?

Turner does report on plans in Denmark to store monentarily unneeded wind energy in batteries of electric cars. Basically sound, but beset by practical difficulties. Subsidies aimed at getting people to buy new cars are the easy part. In the real world cars are parked in streets and driveways. Even if there is a garage, the car is on the driveway and the garage is stuffed with junk. I enjoyed Turner's book, if only because it provokes the reader to invent improvements on the schemes reported on by Turner. Let me indulge in a few of my own.

With a little tweak the idea of storing surplus electricity in batteries of electric cars can be moved closer to reality. Charging time (long) is a difficulty with electric cars. Better buy a charged battery at a gas station, return the depleted battery at a gas station, and get a charged one for the price of the electricity in the charged battery. The gas station will have racks and racks of batteries in various stages of charging. This happens during periods of surplus wind energy. The gas station discharges electricity to drivers stopping by and to the grid at times of high price. That way you need not reform half a million consumers, but only a few thousand gas stations owned by a handful of companies.

This is only one way of coping with intermittency. Wind turbines could be installed close to consumers that are not sensitive to intermittency. The story of batteries in the gas station is but one example. Draining polders in Holland is another. This can be suspended during periods when the grid offers a high price. Draining can catch up on windy nights when almost everyone is asleep. A particularly good match between production and consumption is between solar panels and air conditioning. In the tropics and in the US in summer it may be possible to keep buildings cool mainly by solar panels.

I have left untouched much that is valuable and enjoyable in The Great Leap. My criticisms can be summarized as a lack of evidence that Turner has read his fellow Canadian David Scott's book Smelling Land. If he had done so, he would not have make the remark that wind turbines compare favourably with nuclear power stations in cost per installed watt. Hint: the intermittency problem.


[1] The Leap by Chris Turner. Random House, 2011.