Form Follows Function: An Energy Strategy
Tony E Hansen
29 August 2012
The phrase “form follows function” comes primarily from architecture, but we can see applications in music, literature and software development. This primarily suggests that the shape of the building or “form” should be based upon the “function” or purpose where ornamentation varies in consideration to the proposed function. In the recent few weeks, we have seen considerable attention paid to mining and to wind farms by the different political campaigns. Both have said, rhetorically, we should have an “all of the above” approach, but those approaches tend to favor one form of energy generation over another. Both proposals will mean a measure of jobs and technology that will be created (or not) at the expense of others as part of their proposal. What we need to is to consider what form is following which function of energy policies both from the past, the present, the proposed and the potential future of each.
Author Tim Berglund, in a keynote address, suggested that form and function are important to considering how we build things. He seems to agree with the notion that we build things to a form that is prevalent, but then at some point, we become that form. Then, someone comes along and introduces a twist on the idea. Then, we get another “form” where new designs and new innovations spur from that idea. Until that twist, we are beholden to the limits of the current form and the functions therein. Yet, there has to be willingness in the environment that fosters new ideas because reverting to an old idea is 1) based upon the paradigms of its time, 2) those paradigms may not exist anymore, and 3) the old idea may not be appropriate for the future. We can think of many applications of this, but we can see this principle in the energy strategies, both historic and proposed.
First, let us review what each party is proposing and then we can consider what has been the rule of policy for the past century in order to envision what is possible in the future. Romney wants to end tax breaks for wind energy, wants to remove safety regulations, and wants to promote the coal and gas industries, which is primarily been our energy policy for the last several decades. That innovation stinks like the old and stale “form” of the past century without doing anything to reduce consumption. That policy was written by the oil and coal companies, especially since Reagan’s term. Obama wants, however, to expand tax credits for renewable energy, to expand all domestic generation, and to promote new efficiency standards to bring down overall energy usage.
If we follow the old “form” of energy production in comparison to computer industry over the past few decades, we see drastically lower innovation in the energy industry in favor of milking the current profit models using aging infrastructure. The computer industry went from large, inefficient, and room-sized units to small compact handheld devices with an exponential increase in more computing power. This old form of energy policy does not value dynamics and competition while lining the pockets of the Koch brothers and other Romney friends. Those people (and unfortunately, society at large) have become (or been beholden to) that limited “form.” In contrast, Obama seems to be pushing towards a more opportunistic model (form) where everything is more competitive against each other with the idea that competition spurs innovation. If the society does eventually become the “form” by adopting the opportunistic approach in energy production, then we may discover more opportunities in other areas as well.
The libertarian side of me thinks we should eliminate all government subsidies including corporate welfare and let the markets decide which will flourish. This might work but the market forces have been rigged to support the entrenched (e.g. Koch brothers and friends). The progressive side of me wants more emphasis upon sustainable energy with a strong focus upon eliminating our dependence upon foreign resources while reducing pollution. This might favor more diversified portfolios of Mr. W. Buffet (via MidAmerican Energy) and the so-called Pickens Plan.
The truth is that the oil, coal and gas industries have already enjoyed many tax breaks to encourage the widespread use of these fuels as part of that old “form.” Only recently, thanks in part to Obama, have we seen government promotion of alternative energy. There is clear political and financial motivation that favors West Virginia mines to be promoted over Iowa wind turbine plants. Further, the money trail leads back to a specific profit formula that relegates our energy industry to stagnate innovators as well as America to be reliant upon that stagnation. Since there also is no incentive to make the mines better or safer, that seems to be a “lose-lose” proposition. As well, the lack of interest in new forms locks us into the mindset of the current or past functions and forms. Imagine what is possible if we could power devices over the air instead of wires.
With energy, we have been using the same relative techniques for decades. Our society has become beholden to that “form” while limited to the functions and capabilities of these technologies. If we mean to have the economy of the future, we cannot continue to limit ourselves in this respect. As well, reverting to old ideas is completely contrary to finding new, or better, ones. With that old form, we will never be more than what we were, and we will never discover what we could be. If we want a competitive economy, we have to “think differently” and beyond what we know today because the paths to the past only lead us backwards.