Thinking About Energy – Uncertainty is a Certainty

Welcome to the Bay

Photo Paul Taylor, Hawke’s Bay Today

Now we sit out this storm. No power because the Napier-Taupo road is being hammered at the moment. It has been down for 30 odd minutes. It was blown out last night as well for two hours.

The Napier-Taupo road is closed. It’s snowing up there and down to 200 metres which is *really* low for Hawke’s Bay, famed for sunshine and warmth.  And there is only one major power line that comes into Hawke’s Bay.  And this is a southeasterly, which almost always brings three days of heavy rain to the East. Normally the farmer’s and forester’s friend. Unless it’s during lambing.

Certainty is an absurd assumptionThe one line thing is such a topic here. Like Auckland CBD 15 odd years ago where the reliance upon a single line of power led to a major failing for six weeks.   They did not heed advice from wise engineers arguing for the need of back-up options and resilience.  Their obtuseness led to a major national economic disaster.  And these same financial administration-type ‘managers’ – these narrow technocrats with spreadsheets for brains – argued during the disaster that their purely financial focus (and their assumptions of certainty and controllability) indicated a “well-run” business.  Interviewer Kim Hill was almost speechless in response.  There is no power in the most important CBD in New Zealand and you say it is a well run business??!!

All relevant for us in Hawke’s Bay. We have an energy ‘strategy’ meeting next week, run by the HB Regional Council; the same organisation that thinks the Ruataniwha dam is a good idea .  At the last energy strategy meeting, the convenor (some engineering PhD who did not impress me at all with his obsession with The certainty of uncertaintyquanta as the only basis for decision making) was unable to grasp principles of policy and strategy.  He *could not* grasp the concept of a decentralised system with modularity (different ‘module’ subsystems that can keep going if the “centre does not hold”) and with built in resilience to shocks and uncertainty.  Solar and other potentially decentralised systems – micro-hydro, wind etc.- may be more expensive.  They certainly were within the contexts within which he chose to place them.  He had a spreadsheet, so that’s ok then, it must be true.  And so, it follows within his chosen myopic space, then obviously the large centralised mill approach is just the berries.  We keep failing to think.  We get more narrow and hierarchical and autocratic, and the narrowest non-thinkers and administrative types climb and climb well above their level of incompetence.

This is New Zealand’s obsession with the narrow efficiency approach, rather than system resilience and multiple outcome thinking. It’s why we like building big centralised dams, and centralise our public sector so they live in Wellington with less and less attachment to Stop being busy start being strategicand engagement with the complex real world outside.   There is this strange conjunction between desires for power, ignorance, arrogance and technocratic thought.  And they build castles in the sand with nonsense assumptions of control, and by so doing set up the conditions for not less, but *more*, uncertainty and uncontrollability by pushing us toward thresholds they do not see.

And the same guy is convening next week’s meeting. We argued for a resilience approach last time (some of us) and a scenario analysis approach – what if? Another Napier-Taupo failure. Climate change. Fossil fuel constraints of availability or price. etc.

Technocrats are not wise. They work within a bubble, a tiny world that is certain and controllable, the inside of the Peterson Graph (below). This is a big part of New Zealand’s economic, social and environmental problems. We are dominated by the technocrats, the tyranny of narrow ‘experts’.

Peterson & Strategy

We really should always be thinking out where the real world is – where so much is uncertain and uncontrollable. And we that are trained as technocrats need to be educated (which is different than training) to think in that wider space.

embracing-uncertainty-graphic-2You cannot predict when the storm may hit, or what type of ‘storm’ it will be (economic, social, environmental, a structural failure), or its effects.

But you can at least include within your assumptions the fact that there *will* be a storm … at some time … and some place.  Uncertainty and uncontrollability are certainties.

*That* should be our prime assumption.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

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