Sunday, July 20, 2008

Yes, but ...

This will require a modicum of delicacy ... never my strong suit, I'm afraid. Nevertheless, what my friend Connie du Toit has written here involves complexities she ignores to the ultimate detriment of her argument.

Simplest first is best I have found. To wit, the man's name is Steven Den Beste, see? He signs all his posts that way (when he doesn't go the full bore Steven C. Den Beste). Let me hasten to emphasise that this is not mere idle pedantry on my part, but a means to achieving the underlying point driving this post.

I opened this by calling Connie my friend. I suppose a more critically honest appraisal would be that of good acquaintance. I have been a guest in her home; she and Kim accepted me for a position in a business they attempted; they have been my guest for a day-trip here in Tyler; I enjoyed the lunch companionship of their daughter Ella nee Wendy that day and she is welcome to share in my grilled chicken wrap should we have opportunity again some day. The point being that we share an acquaintance with each other beyond that of reading one or another's blog page.

Steven Den Beste has also made the point that how attentive one is to specific details is important to achieving one's goal; to wit, mis-spelling someone's name is not likely to attract serious consideration of one's topic du juere. Following that logical progression a bit further, I believe Connie has allowed the intensity of her inspiration to cause her to overlook pertinent factors inherent to her thesis, similar to her having overlooked the correct spelling of Steven's name in her pursuit of her literary objective.

Having meandered my way through all those qualifications, let me now try blunt and direct. In a word: context.

As it happens, I have exchanged e-mail with Steven Den Beste on this very topic (when he still wrote for his USS Clueless site), though I would be deeply surprised should he prove to remember any part of that - my position was not a unique one after all. Without re-stateing Steven's case, let me confine myself to Connie's post by pointing out that Steven's perspective when examining energy sources was from that of "a systems engineer". I emphasise this because from such a one's point of view, anything that isn't compatible with a distributed electrical system - power generation source, variable load capacity, robustness, etc. - isn't a directly comparable topic.

By their very nature, alternative energy sources operate at the margins of a distributed energy grid system. Pretty much by definition, any such source cannot replace such a system's capabilities, so in this at least her argument based upon Steven's earlier writings holds true.

It's also a mischaracterisation of the alternative energy scenario as advanced by realistic, informed proponents. Or even me, forsooth! In general, without need for referral to any specific energy source or device, the argument goes much as follows:

No single source or user will effect the demands upon the existing energy system (hereinafter; the grid). X number of independent users will have a measurable effect upon the demands placed upon the grid, if only as a factor of their personally reduced demand thereon. Therefore, alternative energy is a mechanism to effectively expand the capabilities of the grid without in any way being capable of supplanting the grid (which, again, is Steven's requirement as a systems engineer) except in the limited circumstances inherent to it's individual user's circumstance.

Effectively, the act of removing, whether in whole or in part, a sufficient number of individuals from the energy distribution system load has the effect of expanding that system's capabilities whatever Steven's many statements on the subject might be situated to support to the contrary. Getting a "sufficient number of people" to do anything together of their own accord is another matter entirely, I will heartily stipulate (and leave to some other benighted soul - I have a sufficiency of burdens, thankyouveddymuch).

It pains me to see a friend dismiss an endeavor I support, particularly as that endeavor seems to mesh so well with her personal and other preferences as I understand her position to be (conservative vs libertarian, dependant vs self-reliant, etc). It should be noted that, I have been wrong before (as in mistaken vs simple ignorance), and that all of our position's are constantly under some degree of revisement, the esteemed Viscount Falkland notwithstanding. So, it would not surprise me to learn that I have err'ed to some extent here. To the degree such is the case, I proffer my apologies.

That said, I confess to being surprised that Connie would be so fundamentally mis-directed by the analogy she chose. The clutch pedal is not a marginal component of a motor vehicle's drive train, after all. Quite the opposite as a matter of fact, whether we have to physically operate it or not. I would equate a clutch pedal to the presence of in-line capacitor's on AC power distribution poles, critical to the electrical system's function whether the end-user can see/reach them or not. Alternate energy mechanism's might some day achieve that extent of capability, but their initial target market is the individual end-user, not some systemic provider. For a professional trainer to so thoroughly follow the train of logic right over the metaphorical cliff reassures me in my own intellectual striving. Deservedly or not!

It should be noted that there are certain critical exceptions to all of Steven's now-dated premise. That's the problem with citing definitive sources, they have the unfortunate habit of being superseded by subsequent events or developments. There's that word again; within the context in which something was written, it may well remain the definitive word on the topic. But, as the context (you know, the world and everything else) changes, so does the veracity of the statement. The cited examples are only "alternative" electrical power sources in the sense that they haven't yet achieved wide-spread implementation yet. The (with some caveats) theory is there, the engineering and materials science or legislative environment is still catching up though.

As a system engineer, Steven Den Beste made the correct argument for the time period in which he did so. Steven never (to my knowledge) argued that alternative energy systems were technically (or technologically) invalid - except in the noted grid application. Realistic alternative energy promoters have always intended their product for the niches of the distribution grid system or as a short-term back-up for temporary grid outages. Seeking redundancy and a temporary replacement capability of a critical lifestyle component is not at all the same as being "on the alternative energy is our salvation train ...", is it? If so, I'll shovel coal for a while longer yet; Steven wrote about steam power too. :)

PS: No, I didn't miss the point of the whole thing. Steven Den Beste is an experienced and knowledgeable systems engineer (his self-identification), none of which sanctifies his dated opinions on subsequently developed technology. Citing him as a source is identical in relevance to citing the "prophet" Joshua (who was almost as loquacious as Den Beste himself :)).

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