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State Function, Path Function, Path Dependence, & Climate Change

How we get to zero carbon is an unanswered question at this point.

We all know that we have to eventually get to 100% renewables to escape climate change. Even the reality deniers know this, except that they choose to believe that if they deny reality strongly enough then the universe itself will bend to suit their wishes. Let’s ignore them for now.

How we get to zero carbon is an unanswered question at this point.

wind turbines

Image: Zach Shahan |

There is a great deal of modelling showing how to get to a 100% renewable grid, and if we needed the extra confirmation, Tesla has taken islands to 100% renewables with solar and battery storage. After all, the earth is a giant island in space.

So assuming we don’t destroy ourselves first, how do we get from today to zero carbon?

There is no single answer, but let’s get to that in a moment. There are two thermodynamics concepts discussed in this article, and isn’t it ironic that climate change is perhaps the biggest thermodynamics experiment currently being conducted by humanity?

A State Function is a property that when you look at a system you can identify the starting point and the end point. How you get from Point A to B does not matter, just that it is done.

Since all roads lead to Rome, if you decide to travel there you could take many routes. You could travel directly from your location, taking the shortest path possible (and transport over water if necessary) and arriving in due time. You could also decide to visit dozens of out of the way places in opposite directions, making your route many times longer, but as long as you eventually arrive in Rome you have performed a state function. Some will cost a lot more money and time then more efficient plans.

From the Earth’s perspective, all that matters is the state function, that we get off carbon. How we do it does not really matter as long as it gets done before total calamity.

A Path Function, on the other hand, looks at each step made from beginning to end. All roads still lead to Rome, but which ones you took are examined to determine how you got from point A to B. Whether we get off carbon by reverting to a pre-industrial existence, subsidies, new technology, or even with assistance from aliens, how we did it is the most important aspect to a path function and to humanity, especially since we have to look forward and plan the transition, because the path we are currently on will lead to climate destruction.

Path Dependence is not a thermodynamics concept, it’s an observation that A leads to B leads to C, usually in linear progression. Often A is built on to get B which is built on to get C, and so forth. Evolution relies on path dependence.

For example, knowledge that hydrocarbons could be utilized for heat and mechanical work has been known for thousands of years, fossil fuels were eventually discovered, it was quickly realized they could also be used for energy and mechanical work, they were found to be abundant, engines and combustion chambers were developed to convert the chemical energy in fossil fuels to mechanical energy and heat, those reaction chambers were refined and improved over the last century plus, and finally here we are today after realizing that burning oil will destroy the planet.

In a similar vein, renewable technology has developed out of path dependence, solar was developed from the realization that light could be converted to energy, the need for power in space meant solar panels were built to provide that power to astronauts and to run electrical equipment, panels were then built for terrestrial uses, better efficiencies were — and continue to be — developed, costs have come down dramatically through mass production and learning curves, and today solar costs less on a lifecycle basis than most fossil fuels.

Also in a similar vein, batteries and wind evolved from development to today’s grid-scale achievements and cost effectiveness.

Path dependence is amazing when it solves problems, but it can create problems of its own. When you’re stuck on a specific path it can be difficult to go in other promising directions. Lithium technology today has come from invention to refinement to further developed, to where it potentially gives EV several times longer life then a fossil powered vehicle. Yet it’s not necessarily the end-all and be-all of energy storage. From lead acid to Nickel Iron to Vanadium/flow to NiCad to NiMH to Hydrogen and more, alternative storage technologies are available and we can be more efficient by choosing the right technology for the right job. You don’t need lightweight for stationary applications where heavier but more durable and cheaper makes more sense. Even Scotty agrees.

The problem with path dependence comes when you reach the end of the line. Fossil-powered vehicles went from crank start to battery start, from manual chokes and carburetors and breaker points to fuel injection, variable valve timing, and even direct injection. Yet it has reached the end of the line. Making it more efficient will not get us to zero carbon. In a similar vein, lithium may have a bottleneck, whether it’s in resources (cobalt is no joke) or in power output/longevity potential. The problem is that we cannot predict the future to know what the limits are, hence we should not put all our eggs in one basket.

Now we have covered the background concepts.

At the moment, despite the Paris agreement there is no “business plan” in place to transition to 100% renewables, just an agreement to do so and to theoretically figure out how.

We have the technology to get off carbon, but we don’t have a costed inventoried plan of action that we are following. Modelling shows us how to decarbonize each sector, how much energy is used, expected increases in energy needs as the population grows and countries develop, and how much solar/wind/storage/other we need. However there is no unified global plan of what’s needed, how to manufacture it, where to put it, and how to get it financed and installed on time.

We are doing things piecemeal, Canada has a carbon tax (which conservatives will likely soon repeal), Australia is responding to high electricity prices by installing renewables (and had a carbon tax conservatives already repealed), Norway subsidizes EVs leading to amazing market share and US cities and states have proclamations and even laws to go 100% renewable. But these are all independent actions and we are not yet on a planet-wide net zero path in the time available.

We need to sit down and put together a dedicated global deployment plan that is stress-tested, costed, and financed to decarbonize at the scale necessary and on schedule to avert disaster. This is where the path function becomes vitally important. It most certainly can be done, but we have to reject lies, reality denial, and attempts to prevent progress because slight change is scary. Conservatives will attempt to sabotage progress towards a workable plan by starting with the conclusion that it’s impossible, and then devil’s advocating all ideas until they are abandoned. Or inventing fake solutions, then convincing the gullible they will work when in fact they are designed to fail. Not to mention their double standards. Subsidies for fossil fuels and its related industries are protected and even expanded while subsidies for renewables are demonized and often sunsetted. Some examples are the phasing out of subsidies for solar, wind, and EVs.

As an aside, it is possible that in time, right wing voters will choose to elect candidates who still want the typical lies/hate/undoing progress, but who fight climate change. Don’t count on this, as no matter how well they can repackage the same BS, reality denial is the glue of their ideology and any plan they present is likely a poison pill. Trust must be earned, not given away.

We can work with the plans already developed and stress-test them and make improvements, or we can also come up with new plans and consider them in good faith. We should of course assume technology will improve and new breakthroughs will happen, hence we should consider any plan to be a living document, subject to improvement. Of course we don’t currently have the capacity to manufacture all the solar and wind and batteries we will need so we can help seed industries to build them and hence create jobs not just in installation but in manufacturing (which helps ensure supply and prevents those jobs and money from going to China).

When we have made a realistic plan and pledged to go with it, we will have to figure out implementation. If each country needs (x)GW of roof based solar, (x)GW of solar plants (community/utility scale), (x)GW of onshore and offshore wind and (x)GW of battery storage and so on, we need to account for what has been installed already, we need to plan where future assets can be placed and we need to ensure we are on track to meet the timeline and that financing and product supply are available. Those are big tasks, but nowhere near impossible to implement with the proper funding and smart minds crunching the numbers.

Some of the mechanisms we should use to accelerate renewables deployment:

  1. Removal of fossil subsidies: This is often talked about, but there is little progress so far.
  2. Subsidies for renewables: Simply transfer fossil subsides to renewable energy, as it would be revenue neutral.
  3. Carbon Taxes: These should be rebated to taxpayers. If your use is average you are out no money, if your use is below average you make some money, if your use is above average you are paying for it, and this money will be added to renewable deployment subsidies.
  4. Conservation: This reduces the amount of new renewables needed and accelerates fossil retirements from lack of demand.
  5. Efficiency improvements for all new electrical products: Again, this reduces the need for fossil fuels and the amount of renewables needed for future demand growth.
  6. Retirement/recycling programs: Assets already in use will become stranded, so with the proper programs in place this can mitigate the shock to consumers who cannot afford upcharges for new equipment
  7. Subsidies towards renewable product purchases where they are not at parity with fossil models: Parity will come through learning curves and competition, but for rapid transition, accelerated consumer behavior change makes carbon reduction easier.
  8. Existing building efficiency upgrades: Towards net zero/positive where practical
  9. Laws for future buildings to be net positive via building codes: We already have the technology to do this, it simply needs to be mandated.
  10. Community energy and energy storage: This allows everyone to invest in renewable energy accelerating deployment by providing capital and investment returns.
  11. Cultural change towards durability over consumerism and planned obsolescence: The EU is already moving in this direction. Mandating minimum durability warranties for “durable” products saves resources and saves money for consumers.
  12. Bans on sales of new fossil fuel-powered equipment when replacements reach cost parity: We must ignore conservative whining about how efficient means poor quality, as it’s a lying divide and conquer tactic. Opposing durability/efficiency because of ideology and cost that is recouped several times over and pretending planned obsolescence does not exist is meant to rationalize a race to the bottom. Don’t fall for it. Another option is punitive tax levels on fossil-powered equipment, so you can still buy and use fossil powered wares but you pay extra for it, and the money is used for more renewables.
  13. Plans to deal with other climate considerations; concrete, aviation, farming, refrigerants etc.: Coal, oil, and natural gas are not the only climate change hazards.
  14. Seed money for development of renewable technology manufacturing: The supply of renewable products (solar/wind/batteries) will quickly become the bottleneck.
  15. Voting for climate change fighting politicians: When you vote for lies you get (often slow motion) failure. Vote for actual climate progress and you will get it.
  16. A mechanism to get new good ideas to policy makers: It is the height of hubris to believe everything that can be invented has been invented.

Optimization of all of these levers will require intelligent analysis and smart implementation, yet it is completely achievable.

Shifting gears slightly, how much R&D to put into alternatives is an open question. If you bet the farm on hydrogen, you will make things harder than they have to be because its poor efficiency adds to the burden of going renewable. Its adherents have latched onto motivated reasoning and confirmation bias but the energy economics can’t compete with lithium, the distribution platform if it were to replace fossil fuels would be even more headache then the gasoline/diesel we live with today, and the technology has had billions upon billions of dollars poured into it over decades, yet can’t compete with a simple solar panel with lithium battery. It may still have some niche uses where its efficiency penalty is acceptable.

However, we should put some money toward the research of emerging technologies, the refinement of existing technologies (lithium may or may not have a lot of potential left in it), wild ideas, and even Hydrogen, but betting the farm on solutions that are not invented yet while we have workable solutions already is asking to fail for no reason. Andrew Yang has mentioned Thorium, which is ridiculous when it does not even exist yet. Ditto for Bill Gates.

In conclusion, the biggest impediment to a global plan of action and its implementation is conservatives and cyclical politics. The right believes reality denial is all that is needed, and voters do not consider climate change to matter enough to not vote for more “important” single issues such as hate, lies, smears, double standards, and easy answers. Easy answers is perhaps the biggest factor in all votes and the most harmful. We do not have the time to let renewables take over without any supports, and stranded assets are inevitable if we want to save the planet.

There are also many minefields to navigate. Fossil fuel production employs a great number of workers, and while that is diminishing it is still a very important portion of tax revenue and employment for many cities, states, provinces, and countries. Not to mention pensions (that fossil companies try to get out of and conservative governments let them while they blame progressives and voters keep falling for it). Fossil fuel companies have spent decades manipulating public opinion with climate lies and will not go quietly even as the tide turns. They will continue to act against the planet’s best interest and even when they pretend to be on our side, they attempt to evade responsibility for their own actions and to prevent us holding them responsible for their malfeasance.

All of these issues and more have to be skillfully navigated. We can have our cake and eat it too as renewables increase employment in production, deployment, and maintenance. Any misstep or oversight will be seized on by conservatives and voters who keep falling for easy answers over a prosperous future.

Also, motivation matters. China may be making large strides, but its impetus for renewable energy is not only climate change mitigation. It is profit, clearing smog, new industries (and export), and more profit. The country is still building coal power outside its borders because it’s profitable. These types of issues are something we have to be vigilant about and prepared for.

So how do we start this process?

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Written By

I've had an interest in renewable energy and EVs since the days of deep cycle lead acid conversions and repurposed drive motors (and $10/watt solar panels). How things have changed. Also I have an interest in systems thinking (or first principles as some call it), digging into how things work from the ground up. Did you know that 97% of all Wikipedia articles link to Philosophy? A very small percentage link to Pragmatism. And in order to put my money where my mouth is I own one (3x split) Tesla share.   A link to all my articles


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