Saturday, March 12, 2011

Favorite Quote of the Day & How to Train Physicists to be Energy Engineers/Economists

A quote in the newspaper today (WSJ) got me thinking.
 "Some members of this administration apparently live in a world unconnected to energy reality." Erik Milito, American Petroleum Institute.

I do not want to open up Pandora's Box by turning this into a blog with a political slant. (For example, I will work with and work for people of either political slant.)

With that having been said, I am posting this quote because I feel that a certain official in the Department of Energy is giving physicists a bad name when it comes to making energy policy. I feel that this certain official is partially divorced from energy reality. I've seen quite a few of his presentations, and I haven't seen a single graph comparing the economic viability of the technologies he supports. And I've never seen him cite the estimated economic damage from change climate. How does he decide which technologies the Dept of Energy should invest in if he doesn't know the economic damage per ton of emitted CO2? Likewise, I do not think that he has ever presented results on the rate of return on investment or even the return on investment of various technologies. Instead, he ends most of his talks with vague comments on "Protecting the environment for our grandchildren." Well, you can't protect the environment unless you do your homework and calculate the rate of return on investment of various technologies. If you don't do this, you can end up doing silly things like subsidizing corn ethanol (or other renewable technologies) because it promotes job growth (until taxpayers have to pay back the money we borrowed to subsidize corn ethanol.)

As a former physicist (current engineer in the field of generating electricity and transport fuels), what turned me off about many of my ex-colleagues in the physics community was that I felt they were "living in a world unconnected to energy reality." (I too was rather naive, and it took a few years for me to lose my nativity. And I still have some distance to go compared to experts in the field.)

I fully support physicists who are out there studying how the world is, but the ability to ask fundamental questions about how the world is does not necessarily make a person an expert in the field of energy policy or energy technology.

One of the underlying goals in this blog has been to try to rephrase the field of economics so that physicists (who may become under-employed due to upcoming state & federal budget cuts) have as smooth a transition as possible to the field of energy engineering and economics. It has taken me over four years to transition, and I hope that a physicist reading this blog could effectively transition in less than a year.

One reason that I support an electricity-backed currency is that I think that it will encourage more physicists to become energy engineers/economists. I think that some physicists are turned off from economics because it uses units that aren't fundamentally grounded in any of the units that we were taught in school.  [Length, time, mass, charge, etc...]

If we use a currency with units of energy (kiloWatt hours, for example), then this solves the problem of not having to introduce a non-physical unit into the field of economics. And I think that this will encourage more physicists to enter the field of energy engineering/economics.

Ultimately, physics and economics are one and the same, just as physics and chemistry and biology are one in the same. What we need to do is to make economics more "physics-friendly" because what happens during a economic-downturn is that luxuries (like physics) get cut out of budgets because the cost of drilling, driving, & generating electricity is increasing. The economy is demanding more energy engineers and less luxury. We need the really smart physicists out there to focus their effort on solving problems in the field of energy engineering/economics so that the economy starts growing again, at which point we can afford to increase funding for basic physics research. (Same goes with luxuries like space exploration.)

Some physicists may not like this (and they probably are the ones who never took courses in economics in college.) But I think that we can make the transition easier for most physicists by making economics more "physics-friendly."  Imagine if some of the brightest minds out there (who are currently imagining new String Theories) started working on developing theories that ground economics in basic, fundamental physics. There are certainty plenty of people starting to bridge this gap (many of which are associated with Santa Fe Institute), but what if there were ten times as many researchers actively working towards bridging the gap between physics and economics? We could be solving energy problems a lot faster.

As a sign of how important it is to bridge this gap, one of my upcoming posts will be titled "Intro to Economics for Physicists"  Hopefully, it will be of use to practicing energy engineers as well.

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