Lock-in’s : even in Science and by Elon Musk

Large parts of Africa, never had land-line telephones. There was no obstruction from companies that had to defend their market, and the transition to mobile phones was easy. The advantage of the ‘stimulating backlog’.

China had neither any restraints when it started building their modern society. They did not cash in on that immediately, they started copying our society, including our faults . They could have built a society based on renewable energy from the start, but did so only 20 years later, when already coal addicted. But even then, they go faster now with renewable energy as we in Europe. Its even more weird: Europe would not even have started when it wasn’t for China: China busted the market for PV , by producing their own silicon, not to be dependent form arrangements made by European industries, hat had their market regulated at high prices.

What are needed are major transitions, to change our way of life, and reduce our dependency of fossil fuels. If you innovate a laundry machine, you get a A+++ laundry machine, thats soon will also be part of the IOT, the Internet of Things. But thats extrapolating from the existing, which is what multinationals want you to do. It does not solve anything related to scarcity of resources or climate change. The better solution , as more often advocated, is laundry shops, with a good pick-up and delivery service. It prevents producing hundreds of millions of laundry machines, creates local employment , and is more comfortable, when your shirts are clean and ironed back at 5 o’ clock after work. But the industry lobby supports the A+++machine, and governments follow. Which is what is called a lock-in, in old technology.

In the Netherlands the ZEB retrofit initiatives would like to innovate towards all electric, without gas in the houses, and see where that would bring us. If you include gas, you get innovations that extrapolate on the existing, by the investments in the nation wide infrastructure. A physical and a financial lock-in.

An interesting example is the energy retrofit of a few large social housing flats over-here. Is all electric, except for cooking. There was no money left to address that, around 2,5 million. Now the question was put forward to the gas company: They will have to invest soon more then 2,5 million to replace the outdated gas grid in that neighborhood, so if they would be paying for the electric cooking devices, they would even save money. (and the Netherlands want to reduce gas supply due to earthquakes in the gas winning area.) The answers was no, it was not their business.

But even if you eliminate gas supply to the houses, you still have a lock-in, since you will need a back up for wind and solar in winter. If for this you include current powerplants ( coal or gas driven) you still need to maintain that fossil infrastructure, regardless if that would be the best solution in a clean sheet lay out. What is needed is to design a new energy supply and demand model, from scratch, and from there decide what can be maintained and what not.

Besides, the fossil power industry is still heavily subsidized, so its fighting a loosing battle . I once described that as torturing: the government stimulates the renewable energy industry with some subsidies, while maintaining much larger subsidies for the fossil energy industry.

A new lock-in is created, by connecting everything now to the Internet: which needs extra energy, and a data-network. No less then a double lock-in. Preventing more low tech and low impact solutions. And when finally it turns out we don’t have enough energy or materials to support all this, there has grown a emotional lock-in: People start regarding things as gains, that belong to their basic needs. How to convince them they are not, if , to stay below 2 degrees of global climate change, we have to limit peoples electricity budgets? See what happened with with cars, telephone, televisions, , they are all regarded as basic requirements now.

I experience this with my son. I fight to stay somewhat invisible in the Internet, a left over from my hippy years. I work under linux, and stay out of the cloud. But I was scared when I found that my mobile phone, an old one from my son, for every app wanted connection to all data. “Give up”, replied my sun, “you are only making it yourself difficult. There are so many data in the world, that you will remain invisible”. But I prefer not to be wired to any net, unless I personally choose so. Just like used to go to the pub, to connect to my network. Since that was also a kind of data network, with local storage…). Or to go to the sporting club, or the library, as the database.

Outside that I was relatively anonymous, and not depending on it. If I wanted. I would have no problem if we return to that situation, presuming we arrange for that collectively. But not my son ( though he still plays boardgames). He already has the emotional lock-in of modern networks. Which is not wrong, but it comes with a price ticket, in the form of materials and energy.

Just recently a new ocean windpark was announced to produce electricity for 60.000 households. In the end, the production was contracted by Google for their new datacentre in the region ( the IOT consequence): the windpark supplies for extra energy, does not relieve existing fossil energy use at all.

Usually lock-ins are about investments , but there is even a lock-in in science. Most scientists I have learned hover around their own methodology, or assessment approach. They don’t cross-over to other science fields. Maybe since they rely on their trusted experience, or since the research subsidies force them to: like from a government that wants A+++ laundry machines. Its also possible that they don’t want to be a misfit in their community, or since colleagues constantly confirm that direction. Thats a lock-in , in science. Very few look cross sectoral, to other science fields to find new ways. Lately I notice the medical science is now exploring other science fields, but that seems an exception. The physical science operates apart from the energy science, and both are not really connected to for instance the construction world. Two years ago I went for that reason to the World Resource Forum in Davos, Switzerland,, the counterpart of the World Economic Forum, also in Davos each year. Between hundreds of delegates there were only two with a relation to the building and construction sector. One from a engineering firm ( Arup) and myself, as researcher. While the building and construction sector is the one that ‘lives’ from resources, consuming some 40 pct globally.

Regarding physics and energy: A few weeks go I wrote about primary energy as reference for energy calculations, which is completely outdated.[1] It stems from the period that fossil fuels had no competitor. But I hardly see any interaction between physical analyses and the energy world, still calculating in tonnes of oil equivalents. Fossil fuels, which according to the definition of primary energy “ are found in nature” .(sic) Its similar to the with the conception that there are resources that are non-renewable, the abiotic resources. Which even is accepted in scientific LCA approaches. Its non-sense, anything can be renewed, at a price of course. Which is a another mental lock-in in science.

If we don’t breach these lock-ins, transition is doomed. It will require many generations to change things, which there is no time left for. For sure not regarding climate change, as well as for our resource addiction. Lock-ins have to be broken, first and for all in science, otherwise the practical lock ins feel supported.

To start at least with students, but even there we create lock-ins. As Guy Standing argues: If you force students into large financial debts, don’t be surprised if they become liberal moneygrubbers. Forced to earn lots of money, with all consumption effects afterwards. [2] Commercializing universities, creates institutions that “ develop human capital” which can be seen as monetizing knowledge, which has to lead to profits and consumption. Which is counter productive towards our transition goals.

As for instance buying electrical cars. It sounds all right, but firstly we should not replace existing cars with electrical ones. That will require at least a billion new cars. We should convert current cars: why should we abandon these, or even recycle? Todays cars last very long. Its better to replace the fuel engine with a electrical engine. Which creates local employment as well. Notwithstanding the fact that our future will not by definition be maintaining what we have, like a private car .The future is about different and less commuting. Not everyone a electric car. ( there will be 2 billion more car owners next decades) . Which is also the fallacy when Elon Musk is again praised for his innovations. Tesla as a company wants to eliminate transport for its resources, for instance by building a battery factory on top of the lithium mine. While Tesla’s products just maintains the status quo: its still private car ownership. Only a bit less bad. If you really think revolutionary, you have to find other transport solutions as the private car. But Elon Musk makes his own process revolutionary, but not his products, no our transport behavior. He wants us to keep driving , since that is his market. Its ultimately just a business model, and although it comes with some minor improvements , its has nothing to do with our attempt to reduce CO2 emissions or save resources. He strengthens our lock-in to private car ownership.

For a good understanding: not all lock-ins are a problem. My mother, now 96, still has the same dining table as she bought for her marriage, 65 years ago. You don’ need a second one, or another one, the first one creates a lock-in. But why should you replace a dining table now and then, if its made with good craftsmanship? From resource perspective, its a positive lock-in. You have however to realize that a table is something without ‘operational energy” , which makes things easier of course.

In short, lock-ins are mostly but not always a problem. Most important however is, that there are no lock ins about how you think. That there is a lock-in with regards to thinking about lock-ins, so to say. A lock-in in thinking is the most dramatic form: since you don’t realize what lock-ins are, or refer to the wrong reference framework. If you realize there is a lock-in, and can objectively analyze if something is positive or not, possibly with a new way of thinking, only then we can proceed and change things.


[1] http://ronaldrovers.nl/?p=331

[2] zie oa The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class Guy Standing 2014

Author: ronald rovers