On Practicality

By Steven Lightfoot on July 25, 2012

Economic theory typically assumes that, given the right incentives, technological advancement—innovation—is limitless. As economists Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner confirm, “The typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme.” (Freakonomics, 2005). Practicing engineers have a more nuanced view. They will acknowledge that technological advancement can sometimes be aided by legislative or economic levers, but they also recognize that hard technical limitations sometimes exist. These limitations can be related to physical laws, or they can be practical in nature.

As we move further into the 21st century we face many challenges that will be met with technology. With all the technical successes we see in front of us every day, it is easy to forget that limits remain as to what is possible. It is tempting for economists and policy-makers to ignore the practical requirements of technologyand concentrate on theoretical modelling. But there is a risk in doing so. As energy historian Vavlav Smil writes, “…grand theoretical solutions rarely survive brutal encounters with scaling up for large-scale, reliable operations in the real world.” (Smil, 2006)

Although the mundane and practical details of technology are not sexy or attention grabbing, their importance must not be trivialized by technology developers, regulators, or policy-makers.

As they say, the devil is in the details, often the practical details.

This article will explore the meaning of practicality in our technology-based world and consider the results when technical systems are designed with and without practical issues in mind. It will also examine the subject of effective and ineffective public policy resulting from circumstances where regulators and legislators do and do not adequately consider practical matters in their decision-making.

What does being practical mean?

The 2012 Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “practical” as “of, relating to, or manifested in practice or action: not theoretical or ideal.” When dealing with technology, then, being practical means taking into account the requirement to operate in real-world conditions, conditions that are not theoretical or ideal.

With technology that is used directly by people, "practical" means taking into account the vagaries of human nature with all its good, bad and ugly characteristics. It means designing technical systems to meet non-idealized performance needs and with operating and maintenance requirements that can be carried out.

Often enough, technologies have evolved the way they have for very practical reasons. Although two-, three- and multi-wheeled vehicles continue to exist in specialized applications, the vast majority of successful passenger vehicles in developed countries inevitably use four wheels. Why? Because experience has shown that four wheels provide the optimal practical balance between stability and simplicity. Modern technologies, such as the steam turbine or flush toilet, that are sometimes disparaged as having 19th century roots (New York Times, 2011) appear the way they do as the result of literally centuries of R&D that has taken countless practical requirements into account.

Consider the case of petroleum-based fuels like diesel and gasoline. According to the International Energy Agency, “Fuel for transport accounts for some 32 per cent of final energy use. Almost all of this energy is in the form of oil and transport accounts for 60 per cent of total oil usage.” (IEA, 2012). Diesel and gasoline have become the dominant transportation fuels precisely because of their practicality. They have been relatively abundant and inexpensive, we have learned how to handle them safely, they can be stored at atmospheric pressure and temperature, they are easily transported (gas can, tanker, pipeline) and they are very energy dense. This high energy density allows for long ranges of travel and compactness of storage, and the time required to refill the energy supply system (gas tank) is very short.

There are many reasons that the world should move away from petroleum-based fuels, including potential scarcity of supply and to reduce pollution. But for any replacement fuel or energy source to seriously challenge the current dominance of these fuels, each and every one of these practical characteristics must be matched.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are projected to be deployed in larger numbers (University of California, Berkeley, 2009) and this will be a good thing. But they will only really compete with petroleum-fueled vehicles when energy storage and replenishment issues can be improved. If an owner of an EV one day findshimself stranded on a country road with a dead battery, he may wistfully remember the ease with which he could once fill a small gas container at a local garage and quickly be on his way.

Transportation for the fit and beautiful

Shweeb is a proposed personal transit network based on human-poweredmonorail cars. The first prototype system was installed as a leisure attraction in New Zealand. Schweeb recently made the news because it won an award from Google to fund further development (Google, 2008). The proposed Shweeb transit network relies on recumbent bicycle technology to power pods suspended from monorails. Schweeb’s goal is to create a transport solution which provides the user with the same flexibility and comfort offered by the car but without the consequential costs. Schweeb envisions networks of monorail track providing point to point and commuter transit for urban areas.

Highly accessible commuter transport systems need to meet numerous practicaldesign criteria, chief among them the need to accommodate all manner of peopleand their all-too-human needs. They need to accommodate commuters of all ages, health conditions and fitness levels. They need to accommodate commuters with baggage and also must allow for all manner of dress. Commuter transit systems also have technical requirements, including the need for sufficient motive power. They require traffic control systems, and ideally operate in all weather, meaning they require cabin heating, ventilation and windscreen visibility systems.

Can Schweeb meet all of these practical design criteria? Not likely. A system based on the motive power available from a human [less than 400W for durations of greater than ten minutes (IHPVA, 1994)], will likely require additional power for all the auxiliary systems previously described. Not all commuters (read: children, the elderly, and infirm) will be capable or willing to power their own commute. Business people, dressed in business clothing, may be disinclined to physically exert themselves without carrying a change of clothing.

 

The promotional material for Schweeb shows a photograph taken on a sunny day of attractive young woman dressed in summer clothing seated in a Schweeb pod. Schweeb will be successful on a large scale only if it can meet the practicalneeds of a wide range of commuters in less than the attractively idealized circumstances. While an interesting experiment, Schweeb is likely to remain limited to being a leisure attraction in a temperate climate for a long time to come.

 

 

Some regulators simply don’t get it…..

 

One of the keys to the successful outcome of legislation or regulation covering technical matters is the degree to which practical matters are taken into account.Journalist William Tucker has written for more than two decades about energy and the environment. In his 2008 book Terrestrial Energy, he talks extensively about the electric car, and the manner in which US regulators attempted to force technical advances without due consideration for practical matters.

 

Tucker describes how, after years of research spurred on by the 1973 energy crisis, General Motors announced in 1990 that it was about to launch its new electric car, the EV1. Tucker writes “The vehicle might have evolved from there, but the California Air Resources Board [CARB] leaped upon the news and mandated the auto companies produce “zero-emissions vehicles: (ZEVs) by 1998. ZEVs would have to be 2 percent of California sales the first year, 5 percent by 2001, and 10 percent in 2003. Stiff fines or exclusion from the California market were the penalties.”

 

Mandating technical innovation is tricky at the best of times. As Tucker further states “At the time, lead-acid batteries still had a range of only 80 miles and required four hours to recharge”. Needless to say, as of 2011, EV battery performance has not improved sufficiently to make EVs a practical option for most drivers. Eventually CARB relented when it became obvious its EV development targets would not be met. CARB withdrew its sales and performance mandates for EVs in California, but not before countless billions were wasted in fruitless development.

 

Hope cannot serve as the basis for a practical approach to technical development. California regulators failed in their understanding that practicalrequirements are of paramount importance when developing new technology.

 

And some do…..

 

While some regulators do not properly take practical issues into account when developing public policy, others do. One current example is the Canadian government's efforts to phase out the use of coal-fired electrical power generation.

 

Leaving aside a discussion of the wisdom of actually implementing these policies, or the unintended consequences that may result from them, the federalgovernment is developing legislation to force utilities to emit not more than a certain amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for the electrical power they produce. Taken from page 3 of Canada Gazette – Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired generation of electricity regulations, “The objective of the proposed regulations is to ensure a transition away from high-[CO2] emitting coal-fired electricity generation to low or non-emitting generation such as renewable energy, high-efficiency natural gas, or thermal power with carbon capture and storage (CCS)” (Canada Gazette, 2011). Additionally, this document states “...the performance standard is set at the emissions intensity level with consideration of natural gas combined cycle technology – a high efficiency type of gas generation – and will be fixed at 375 tonnes of CO2/GWh.”

 

While the authors of this proposed legislation theoretically leave it open to utilities about the kinds of generation they can employ to produce electricity with lower CO2 emissions, in practice, they fully expect electricity producers to engage in fuel switching, and shift away from burning coal to burning natural gas. Theyobviously recognize that the other options they suggest as possibilities are not, in fact, practical options in the near term. Carbon Capture and Storage, partnered with coal-fired generation, is in the very early stages of commercial development(US DOE, 2012) and intermittent renewables are currently impractical for use asbaseload generation (World Nuclear Association, 2012).

 

The giveaway is the value of 375. The regulators understand that, of the generation options suggested, the only practical replacement to coal forgenerating the amounts of baseload electrical power currently produced, is natural gas. And the most efficient way of burning it to produce electrical power is by using gas turbine combined cycle technology (NPC, 2007), which has a thermal efficiency approaching 60% (PEI, 2010). The 375 CO2 emissions limit is based exactly around what is practically achievable by modern commercially available CCGT generating stations.

 

Had they made the emissions standards even lower, expecting that utilities could commercially implement renewables or CCS, utilities would have had no other choice but to either ignore the rules or use nuclear power where hydro powerreserves do not exist or have been fully developed.

 

Unlike the CARB regulators and their blind faith in how EV technology could develop, the current Canadian government is forcing society to change its ways, but is doing so by taking practicality into consideration.

 

Conclusion

 

Policy-makers are more and more frequently being challenged to provide policies that incorporate technical solutions to societal problems. There is a continuous temptation to incorporate legal, social and economic factors in those policies, butto downplay the importance of practical factors where technological solutions are concerned.

 

While there are countless good theoretical ideas out there for new technology, practical issues are the Achilles heel of so many apparently good, but ultimately flawed, concepts.

 

As humanity moves forward into a world filled with so many competing requirements for improved environment standards and increased energy use, it isuseful to remember the importance of taking practical matters into consideration.

 

About the Author:

 

Steven D. Lightfoot, Eng., has more than 20 years of multidisciplinary experience in the machinery engineering and power generation industries and is a member of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec.

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