Decision Space for a Post-Carbon World: Towards Better Technology Choices

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by: Michael Hoexter

In my last post on “picking winners”, the role of political and economic leaders and experts in helping shape the future low or post-carbon society started to become clear. We will not be able to rely solely on the impersonal forces of a market or market-based regulatory regime like carbon pricing and trading to build clean energy infrastructure rapidly. Even in our current economy, infrastructure always bears the brush-strokes of large-scale government programs or the work of the largest corporate entities and their founders.

The decisions and tastes of Robert Moses influence the way of life of metropolitan New Yorkers to this day. Convinced of the primacy of the automobile even in highly dense central New York, Moses built bridges and parkways in lieu of improved mass transit, accelerating flight from the center city. While most planners now look critically upon Moses’s legacy, his decisions were based in part on widely held views of what was "the good life" in early to mid-20th Century America.

The framework of the US economy of the last century bears the marks of people such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Moses and Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Analogously, in the world of computer code, early sometimes arbitrary decisions by coders are still felt decades later as they become part of the legacy of various pieces of still-useful software.) Infrastructure and even the finer grain of economic life is not only attributable to impersonal forces but shaped as well by individual or group decision making.

While the results of earlier decisions may function as monuments to these individuals, we also live with both the negative and positive consequences of these partly personally motivated decisions. The Interstate Highway System bears the mark of Eisenhower’s own experience in attempting to traverse the nation in 1919, encountering the deficits in the existing highway system. It also bears the marks of economic forces at work around Eisenhower, including the shared belief that individual and family auto-mobility fueled by petroleum was and would continue to become the dominant means by which Americans moved about and structured their built environment. Yet, within that framework of assumptions, which have attracted increasing numbers of critics, the Interstate system is a triumph of social and economic planning.

Planning the Framework for the Post-Carbon Economy

The three of the most prominent leaders of the climate protection movement, Al Gore, James Hansen and Bill McKibben are now in agreement upon the desirable target carbon dioxide concentration of 350 ppm in the atmosphere, a net subtraction of amounts of the gas from the current accelerating levels. This target demands that builders of the post-carbon infrastructure start where possible at a zero or negative-carbon rather than a reduced-carbon technology choice, such as natural gas.

Planning the infrastructure for a post-carbon world will have, in some senses, more exacting requirements placed on it than previous great pulses of public works construction. Applied to the work will be the metric of carbon emissions invested in the construction itself against the potential for carbon emissions reduced by that infrastructure over its lifetime. Furthermore if we accept the target of 350 ppm carbon dioxide within a decade or two, a net reduction from the current 382 ppm with an accelerating rate of carbon emissions and a half-life of hundreds of years for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there are very high demands for rapidity in the building of an infrastructure that would support this level of decline in emissions. Furthermore, as we have become unused to massive infrastructure projects over the last few decades, we will have to become reaccustomed to the expense and practical impact of these projects. Finally, we now live in a uniquely information-loaded society with a 24 hour news-cycle, where there is expectation for a high level of transparency in most public proceedings and the capacity for even greater levels of transparency. While our very sophisticated information systems may be helpful in some regards they also can place every decision under a microscope.

Making the right choices in building this new infrastructure will rely heavily on rigorous scientific and engineering analysis but in addition will employ some guesswork as projections will need to be made for usage patterns and energy demand in 10, 20 and 30 years in the future. The assumptions that are employed will be key but should always be based as much as possible on either known quantities or reliable scientific theories. The cultural trend in the US of the last three decades has been a progressive questioning of the values of science and technology, yet, despite the anti-science vogue now it seems ending with the Obama administration, we have good reason to believe that we still have the know-how to design and break ground on these projects.

Key Post-Carbon Technology Choices in the Energy

At a recent meeting convened by the climatologist Jim Hansen, the central focus was on providing a menu of choices for policymakers and industry executives on ways to reduce substantially or eliminate GHG emissions. For that meeting I formulated the notion of a decision space to allow for a standardized yet rigorous model for deciding between or weighing apples and oranges. More later on decision spaces.

I would describe the fundamental post-carbon decision making domains as follows, some of which were discussed at the Nov. 3rd meeting, though have been the subject of many discussions online and in the real world for a number of years now:

Energy carrier/medium:

  • Electricity (including Electrochemical Batteries and Capacitors)
  • Hydrogen
  • Biofuel
  • Biogas
  • Non-biosource synfuel

In an earlier era of environmental wisdom it was thought to be a benefit to convert old railway tracks into biketrails, a.k.a. "rail trails". In the post-carbon world, an electrified rail line in many of these locations might be a wiser, more sustainable choice, though less scenic. How are decision-makers to choose between two "green" options, especially on the level of infrastructure where GHG-reduction effects are often second-order rather than direct?

Functional and Economic Role

  • Energy supply
  • Energy demand (efficiency and conservation)

Fundamental Geographical Unit of Analysis

  • Building/Facility/Property
  • Local/Regional
  • National
  • Continental/Global
  • Multiplex (simultaneous geographical levels)

Electricity Generation

  • Small-scale renewable
  • Large-scale/Any-scale renewable
  • Conventional (3rd-generation) nuclear
  • 4th-generation nuclear (experimental)
  • Coal/Natural Gas with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (experimental)
  • Biomass Plus Carbon Sequestration/ Biochar burial

Electricity Transmission Current Type

  • HVDC
  • High Voltage AC

Electricity Transmission Form Factor

  • Underground transmission lines
  • Above ground transmission lines

Energy Storage Technology

  • Thermal energy storage (solar – high temperature)
  • Pumped hydroelectric
  • Large-scale batteries
  • Small-scale distributed batteries/vehicle to grid (V2G)
  • Hydrogen extraction, compression and storage
  • Biomass (woody and cellulosic)
  • Biofuel (liquid)
  • Biogas (gaseous)

Advocates of high speed or improved rail service are divided between those who advocate improving current railbeds, those who seek to build a dedicated high speed passenger rail network and those who advocate newer technologies like this magnetic levitation train, currently used to transport passengers to the Shanghai airport. Wise decision-making in this area will need to weigh a variety of factors both context specific and generalized to some national transport plan.

Transport Infrastructure
Carriageways and Traffic Design

  • Overhaul existing railbeds (allowing higher speeds)
  • New high speed rail
  • Grade-separation of existing rail
  • Magnetic levitation rail (maglev)
  • New light rail (urban/suburban and aboveground/underground)
  • New suburban/regional rail
  • Bus rapid transit and busways
  • Podcar/Personal Rapid Transit
  • Linear induction motor rail (experimental)
  • Bicycle friendly traffic design
  • Pedestrian friendly traffic design

Transport Energy Conversion and Distribution

  • Electrify new and existing rail
  • Plug-in 480 volt+ (quick charge) infrastructure and grid reinforcement
  • Public battery exchange
  • Multifamily and street 120-240 volt (trickle) charge infrastructure
  • Electrify local roadways (trolleybuses and trolleytrucks)
  • Electrify highways (experimental)
  • Biofuel refineries and distribution systems (pipelines, etc.)
  • Hydrogen electrolysis and distribution infrastructure (a.k.a  Hydrogen “Highway”)
  • Home electrolysis (for hydrogen)

Optimize use of existing transport infrastructure

  • Public bicycle rental (Velib model)
  • Internet and mobile phone enabled ride sharing
  • Improved vehicle sharing infrastructure
  • Smart Highways and traffic avoidance, driving automation

These choices are not necessarily mutually exclusive yet policymakers, community and corporate leaders will need to choose priorities among these, often with partisans of one or another solution providing them with information and opinions. There are so many factors involved that it is impossible for individual decision-makers to command all the relevant facts, requiring the help of consultants and experts and I believe a best-practices decision-making process.

In the arguments around these issues that have until now mostly taken place in cyberspace or private forums, people are wont to create their own list of favorites with more or less supporting evidence. Some have sectioned themselves off into sub-communities to reinforce the choice of one device or source of energy or another.

Emotion-based vs. Reason-based Decision Making

By studying patients with localized brain injuries, neurologist Antonio Damasio has found that emotions play a key role in individuals ability to make effective decisions. Despite the appeal of Damasio’s work on an individual level, I am suggesting here that we need on a broader social level, rational discussion of the most important decisions we as a society will make, putting bounds on the influence of emotions.

Recently in popular and popularized psychology much has been made of the importance of emotions in thought and decision making. Most widely-known is the popular book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Blink”, which celebrates the precision of spontaneous decision making over the more archetypical thought-out, planful variety. Academic psychologists and brain scientists have observed that brain-damaged patients who don’t have access to their emotions are poor decision makers. In my own studies of psychology, I have every reason to believe that an integration of emotional life with rational thinking is healthy for us human beings.

However, one individual making decisions for themselves is in a different circumstance than leaders and representatives of groups making decisions that affect more than just their own welfare. Here, whatever the use participants make of their emotions, agreed-upon statements of fact or opinion, we call “reasons” are required for there to be discussion and mutual influence and eventual agreement between “deciders”. We have gone through a period of time where our President has called himself the “decider” which technically was true, but he also subscribed to a philosophy of decision-making “from the gut” that ended up leading to what many feel to be disastrous consequences for our country. We are almost assured that President-elect Obama will engage in a more transparent decision-making process that calls upon reasons to make decisions.

While I hope that people’s passions and interests will inform their rational processes, there is also a role for disciplining passions and putting them in perspective. Our emotional responses to the prospect of climate change and environmental degradation can be drivers of our engaging in a decision making process but should not “rule” our ability to think and communicate about the options. This will necessarily be a group and we hope democratic process that will enable us to come to effective and relatively durable solutions to the tasks at hand.

The Paradox of Choice

The stunning number of consumer options, some just minutely different from others, leaves residents of advanced industrialized countries with a need to simplify and find shortcuts to "good enough" choices. Political and economic leaders making epochal decisions about massive projects and expenditures need to consider the facets of each option with great care to come up with "good enough" outcomes.

A brilliant idea and book by behavioral economist Barry Schwartz highlights some of the challenges facing decision makers in this complex arena. In “The Paradox of Choice”, Schwartz highlights how increased choice can put a strain on individuals and families in advanced consumer societies where we are supposed to be masters of our destinies through an expanding selection of choices in almost every area of our lives. Reviewing the options and ramifications of each choice available to us becomes a mind-bogglingly complex and time-consuming task. Schwartz suggests that targeting satisfactory or “good enough” solutions rather than “perfection” is one technique that people can use to simplify their lives as they face a mind-bogglingly large set of options.

It is here that the value of emotionality in decision-making comes to the fore. Emotional and “intuitive” responses to situations short circuit the lengthy intellectual processes of examining alternatives in great detail. A “gut” response to a situation or decision can lead to SOME decision rather than NO decision being made. Our emotions can line up the sense data and experience we collect into “good” and “bad” more quickly than a more reason-based approach. Obsessiveness is a personality characteristic that makes some people more prone to intellectuality and emotional disconnection in decision making, sometimes leading to tremendous indecisiveness as the details of each option are weighed ad infinitum. However with some important decisions, a level of obsessiveness is a desirable characteristic (some would dispute that this should be called “obsessive” if it is functional) as many factors and risks need to be weighed.

Our decision-makers faced with planning a post-carbon world or at least nudging us in that direction, don’t have the same luxury as consumers to consciously reduce their efforts and time in evaluating choices available to them for their own wellbeing. Additionally, we have come to a point in our political life when “gut” level decision making is now passing out of favor. More and more people now recognize that too much is at stake in the decisions that political leaders make for self-preservative cutting of corners or quick intuitive decisions. On the other hand, political and large corporate decision-makers have access to the resources which would allow them to paint a fuller picture than ordinary consumers.

In addition, the demand that decision-makers be accountable for their decisions to others forecloses the predominant use of “gut” level decision making. To communicate about and incorporate the insights of others in decision-making, one needs to have reasons for decisions based on shared facts. Emotions are by their nature private or at least ambiguous and subjective in their valuation. If the decision is about a personal or family matter these emotions are more important but in the domain of politics and macro-economics, the decision-maker’s personal idiosyncrasies are supposed to have less weight. The largest entities where personal idiosyncrasies are perhaps beneficial to decision-making are in corporations like Apple, through which the founder’s  (Steve Jobs) vision and interests have co-designed their product line in tandem with engineering teams and their adoring market.

Decision Matrices and Decision Space

The LEED green building system uses a decision matrix derived by committees of the US Green Building Council that are intended to reflect the diversity of factors that make a building more environmentally friendly. Here in the "Energy and Atmosphere" category is given a weighting of 17 points out of 69 possible points and within that category the building’s overall energy efficiency is given a weighting of as many as 10 points, while the employment of renewable energy at the site can contribute as many as 3 points. Other rating systems of what constitutes a green building have different weightings of these factors.

One technique used in group decision making that requires the weighing of multiple factors is called the decision matrix or Pugh method. Named after the Scottish product engineer Stuart Pugh, the Pugh method also known as a “multi-criteria decision analysis”  is used in engineering and quality teams in industry. In a decision matrix, each decision-relevant factor is given a weighting and then individual prototypes or situations are rated on each factor yielding a score. That prototype with the highest score is deemed to be the best according to this decision making model. The ratings could be based on objective measurements and/or numerical ratings of people’s subjective opinions. Decision matrices allow a simple “go or no go” decision to be made from a welter of factors that may be objective or subjective numerical ratings.

The LEED green building rating system is a version of a decision matrix but instead of a single winner or a ranking, buildings are rated according to 4 distinct scoring levels which lead to the awards LEED Certified, LEED Silver, LEED Gold, and LEED Platinum. The rating system weights different factors more or less depending upon the USGBC’s assessment of what constitutes a more sustainable building or building practice. What I am calling the decision space is the social and scientific terrain of which a given decision matrix is one possible map. A decision space is a multidimensional (n-dimensional) virtual construct within which decision-makers move to make reality-based and reason-based decisions. To structure and call attention to the decision space means to alert people involved to the different factors and the “meta” decision making process of how to decide. For buying a pack of gum, one doesn’t need a decision-space or a decision-matrix though health conscious or obsessive buyers might make their own impromptu ones. By distinguishing between the decision matrix and the decision space, I am calling attention to the process by which individual decision matrices may be generated through a scientific and political process. Without the notion of a decision space, I’m afraid that a given matrix, with its selection of factors and weightings, would become treated as a given rather than an object or work and potential revision.

A Provisional Post-Carbon Decision Space

The conception of wisdom attributed to Socrates via the writings of Plato emphasizes that awareness of one’s own ignorance rather than a particular content of thought. It is amazing that over two thousand years later, that Socratic wisdom is often arrived at through hard-won experience rather than through received cultural wisdom.

While experts and leaders may think they already know what the solutions are, one individual probably does not know enough to choose among ALL the solutions in building the infrastructure we need for the post-carbon economy. A post-carbon decision space is one way of requiring an attitude of Socratic wisdom, of knowing what you don’t know, of decision-makers. If a post-carbon decision space  were available, decision makers would need to justify the choice and weighting of factors in designing a decision matrix and require that sufficient data be collected to rate available choices. Gut level and charisma-influenced decisions would be highly unlikely as choices would get rankings that we hope would be informative and influential. While, I wouldn’t go so far as to insert the requirement that the resulting rankings be binding upon decision-makers and decision-making bodies, the data output would seem to indicate which choices are better and which choices are worse for a given application.

In this provisional post-carbon decision space, I came up with the following factor structure. As to reasonably address all of these facets requires consultation and study, I would think that an attitude of Socratic wisdom would be helpful.

Prerequisites (Is this a post-carbon technology at all?

  1. Reduces GHG emissions 90% as compared to replaced technology
  2. Available for deployment by 2018


  1. Current Cost of Deployment (per unit useful product and per unit GHG avoided)
  2. Projected Future Cost of Deployment (5 year, 10 year, 15 year horizons) (per unit useful product and per unit GHG avoided)
  3. Potential for Profit (margin between true cost and perceived market value or prescribed price)
  4. Potential for Workforce Development and Employment (project-oriented and long-term)
  5. Percentage discount from expectable carbon price ($50/tonne carbon dioxide)
  6. Capitalizes on sunk costs/existing infrastructure
  7. Losses from abandoned GHG-emitting assets
  8. Available incentives to recover economic losses from abandoned GHG-emitting assets.
  9. Requirements for new ancillary infrastructure
  10. Dependence upon government subsidy
  11. Allows investment in small monetary and time increments/rapidly recursive development depending upon results

Efficacy as Climate Protection

  1. Availability for deployment in 2009/2010 or soon thereafter/Technological maturity
  2. Scalability to energy demand and GHG emissions reduction targets
  3. Geographical range of application
  4. Coal replacement value (how closely matches energy output of coal-fired technologies)
  5. Petroleum replacement value
  6. Natural gas/propane replacement value

Efficacy as Energy Source

  1. Energy Return on Energy Invested (current and projected future)
  2. Reliability and Availability
  3. Primary energy is a stock or a flow
  4. If a flow, storage capability and cost for primary energy flow
  5. Dependence on exhaustible or rare resources/(narrow) sustainability

Continuity with Existing Social Institutions

  1. Convenience/Consumer acceptance of products and services
  2. Continuity with existing industry expertise.
  3. Continuity with existing employment structure.
  4. Favored by established economic interests and industry players
  5. Disruptiveness for existing industries and interest groups
  6. Physical Proximity or Accessibility to Decision-maker

Systemic Risks and Dependencies

  1. Dependence on government management of operations
  2. Non-Carbon Ecological footprint (land use, water use, air use, non-GHG emissions, volume of solid and liquid waste of fuel extraction/generation, manufacture and operation, toxicity of waste and emissions )
  3. Potential for catastrophic failure
  4. Vulnerability to changes in atmospheric or climatic conditions
  5. Vulnerability to attack or vandalism

Eventually, to be useful weightings would need to be assigned to these factors. Some may be “worth” 5 to 10 times more as a category than others but this evaluation will in many cases also be evaluator- and context-dependent.

Mark Jacobson’s Petroleum-Replacement Analysis

Prof. Jacobson’s analysis favors the use of wind energy in combination with battery electric vehicles. Though not intended as such, this analysis supports advocacy of vehicle to grid technology that suggests that BEVs charging from the grid at night can smooth the power output of wind turbines, which are more likely to produce power at night.

The most comprehensive example of a post-carbon decision matrix is, to my knowledge, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s recent rating of 12 post-carbon alternatives for replacing petroleum for all US on-road vehicles. His rating system considered 12 options that combined an energy carrier and an energy source that would substitute for our current on-road vehicle fleet and petroleum fueling infrastructure. Jacobson does not consider the complicating factors of changing modes of transportation (from road to rail, for instance) or reducing vehicle miles traveled through consolidating trips. The twelve options were battery electric vehicles powered by wind, concentrating solar power, solar photovoltaic (typical solar panels), geothermal, tidal, wave and hydroelectric among renewables and additionally by nuclear and coal with carbon capture and storage. In addition Jacobson considered wind power extracting hydrogen from water through electrolysis and powering fuel cell vehicles as well as corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol powering internal combustion vehicles. Jacobson rated these options using the following factors: available energy resources (size of resource), effects on GHG emissions, effects on non-GHG air pollution and mortality, land and ocean use, water supply, effects on wildlife and the environment, energy supply disruption, and addressing the problem of intermittent renewable energy sources.

This pioneering analysis indicates that wind power powering battery electric vehicles would be the most favorable petroleum replacement followed by wind power powering hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and concentrating solar power powering battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Most of the recommended options suggest that the most favorable energy carrier to replace petroleum would be electricity stored in vehicle batteries, thus supporting the renewable electron economy concept. However, contrary to my and other analyses based largely on energy efficiency, Jacobson finds that hydrogen fuel cells paired with wind, using his analytic categories are superior to a number of renewable plus BEV options. Using the weightings he does, his analysis discounts the need to develop almost three times the clean electricity generation facilities to support the hydrogen option.

Jacobson’s is also yet another analysis that indicates that biofuels as we now know them or can conceive of them in the near future are a far inferior option as mass replacement for petroleum. Jacobson ranks corn ethanol last and cellulosic ethanol second to last in terms of their overall negative impacts as compared to their positive impacts. They are far inferior in his decision matrix to all the other options considered with a wide gap separating the biofuel options from the battery electric and single hydrogen fuel cell options, making the internal diversity of the latter seem fairly trivial. Another decision matrix with a higher weighting for a liquid fuel compatible with existing internal combustion technology might make biofuels appear more favorably. However, Jacobson’s analysis crucially gives weight to the costs of local air pollution, which biofuels will in some cases worsen, and land and water use, of which biofuel production requires massive amounts. Renewably fueled electric-drive transportation has no or very low impacts in these areas. While arguments can be made for re-jiggering the weightings and adding factors, Jacobson has established a precedent of a multi-dimensional analysis, which cannot be ignored.

Towards a Best Practices Post-Carbon Decision-Space Tool

Jacobson’s analysis points to the value of a multi-dimensional decision matrix designed for a given question, organization or locality. Even if the results of a such a decision matrix are eventually subjected to a more “rule of thumb” type of decision-making process, the process of considering and collecting data about the factors that relate to a given decision will provide discipline to decision-makers and encourage transparency. Even if a more private deliberation is desired, using a best practices model will allow for multiple factors to be taken into consideration and rationales discussed with the relevant team.

A post-carbon decision space tool can also interact with the various carbon pricing regimes being discussed at state, national and international levels. The macro-economic level at which these discussions have occurred could mesh with though not necessarily always “agree” with the results of a well-designed decision matrix. As I have indicated, in the previous post, the building of infrastructure lies in certain regards “orthogonal” to whether or not the builders of that infrastructure are emitting less carbon. The building of infrastructure in the next decade will involve large carbon emissions, so in some sense will be penalized by a carbon pricing regime.

Furthermore, knowing that there is a price on carbon will not necessarily deliver to the actors involved the information they need to make decisions about how to emit less, with the exception of increase efficiency or “do” less. The post-carbon decision space will allow for multiple factors to be taken into account and will also deliver a more qualitative selection of alternatives with both their expectable carbon benefit and a weighing of other factors key to long term viability.

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