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  May 28, 2010
The Law of Unintended Consequences

 
Recently I found myself driving along a sparely driven highway struggling to get my blue-tooth headset to operate.  My attention, at the time, was focused on trying to get my ear piece to synch with my phone rather than on my driving so I didn’t see the slowly moving farm equipment up ahead.  It was only at the last minute that I raised my head to see the fast approaching tractor in front of me.  I slammed on my brakes avoiding what would have been surely a fatal car crash.

As I drove away, I began to get angry at our state government for enacting the "hands free" laws that requires all drivers to use hands free device when using their cell phone. The law intended to save lives almost killed me. 

This is a great example of how the Law of Unintended Consequences works.  The basic concept of unintended consequences has been around for centuries in antidotal form but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that a social scientist named Robert Merton actually did significant research on the topic.

The basic principle of the Law of Unintended Consequences is that some outcome, positive or negative might unexpectedly result from an original action.  In other words...it’s the original action’s "side-effect" that most significant to the outcome. 

We see the positive results of the law when we learn that ordinary aspirin, created to relieve pain, has a more positive side-effect in that it helps to thin the body’s blood and help to reduce heart attacks.  Today, significantly more aspirin is taken to prevent heart attacks than to relieve pain.

We also can see the negative effect of the unintended consequences when people create a demand for low cost foreign-made goods sold at big-box stores but are devastated when their job is outsourced overseas and the small merchants can no longer compete with the global retail giants destroying main street America.

Recently I received an interesting e-mail from my new friend, Sunil in Bangalore, India, who was very concerned with the world’s recent obsession with "Green Technology". Now there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to save the planet by doing this to help conserve our resources however in some cases we may need to look at the "big picture" to see if we’re on the right path when unintended consequences are factored into the equation. 

To illustrate this point, Sunil uses a great example: the electric vehicle.  On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the concept until you start following the path back to the point of generation. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2008, 67% of the world’s electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal, or natural gas.  Hydro power accounts for 16%, nuclear 15% and all other sources of renewable including solar, wind, geothermal and tidal account for only 2% of all generated power. Therefore, most likely, the two-thirds of the electricity generated to power an electric vehicle came from burning fossil fuels.  Click HERE to view the latest DOE report.

So here’s where is gets interesting...the fossil fuel is burned at the power plant to create steam to turn large turbines.  During this conversion of heat to electricity, power losses are created by the inefficiencies in the process.  Then the power is sent to cities over high voltage lines where additional power losses are created.  The high voltage power is then "transformed" to lower voltages (more power losses), distributed to homes and businesses (more losses). 

The electric vehicle is then plugged into the wall socket, where the electricity is vehicle is charged by converting electricity to chemical energy (batteries).  As the car gets driven, the batteries discharge, with additional energy losses created before that electrical energy can be used to power several motors to turn the wheels of the car. 

The overall losses of the power generation / delivery system are over 30% of the power originally generated.

The Law of Unintended Consequences shows us where it takes roughly 1.3 gallons of burned fossil fuel to travel the same distance in an electric vehicle than it does by a regular gas-burning car.
 
The amazing thing is to me is that very few people even ask the question "how do we get the electricity in the first place in order to power the electric vehicle?"  Electricity is supposedly a clean fuel...but not when it is generated using fossil fuels.  As it turns out, it is far more polluting to drive an electric car than a regular gas engine car!

Yes...alternate renewable energy sources are on their way but it’ll take time and lots of investment capital.

I also have no doubt that there will be some other Unintended Consequences due to these other alternative sources (such as new transmission lines to remote areas where solar and wind energy can be "farmed", the damming of rivers and streams that will disrupt wildlife habitat for hydroelectric power and nuclear waste disposal...just to name a few). 

So much of life is a trade-off or compromise but we do need to understand what the stakes are on both sides of the coin.

The world is a complex place.  A better understanding of the problems help us to create better solutions.

My many thanks to Sunil for reminding us to stay informed and tuned-in.

Thank you very much for continued support of OptiFuse as we try to shine a light on problems in order to create better solutions.


Jim Kalb
President
OptiFuse
jimk@optifuse.com

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