Over the years, I’ve heard any number of solutions to a host of ills. Most of them sound wonderful in abstract. It’s when when you start to think about the issues with implementing those solutions that you can run headlong into the bright-eyed denial of them by various activists. Yes, the solution is perfect! I’m just being obstructionist, a corporatist shill, an anti- something if I foolishly bring up those silly obstacles! No, I’m a realist and pragmatic. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects, and I’ve learned the hard way that what seems to be a great idea when you thought of it often turns out to be a nightmare when you’re trying to put into practice. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your purpose was to drain the swamp.” If you’re not giving thought to the “alligators” in your plan, the odds are that they’ll remind you of that when they bite you.
I started thinking about this again when I read various people advocating for their particular favorite form of green energy. Yes, it’s a wonderful idea. I do believe in climate change, but even without that, I recognize that it’s necessary anyways. Coal has a lot of problems, and sooner or later it’s going to run out. Oil is not going to last forever, and natural gas has some of the same issues. That’s in addition to the amount of money we’re spending overseas buying oil and gas. It’s much better to be able to have a renewable, low-emission power that keeps us independent of imported energy. So why do I have qualms? Because when various advocates talk about their solution, they never acknowledge the potential problems. Their solution is “perfect,” a complete solution to the nation’s energy needs! No one could be against that!
Then there’s the reality. Wind power? Great idea. Build lots of wind turbines in the midwest. Except that there’s environmental groups who will (and have) pointed out that it’s sitting right on a major migration pathway. What about the birds? Solar power? Good idea as well! The desert southwest has plenty of sun, and it’s … desert! Who would ever be against that? Well, the Sierra Club in California, for one. That’s what happens when you propose building a plant in an area with an endangered species. In other words, none of the advocates foresaw that there might be environmentalists who would fight them. There’s also the pragmatic considerations that never seem to get addressed fully. One of them is that both of those solutions put power generation a long way from where power is used. Which means that you have to get it from where you’re generating it, to where you’re going to use it. Anyone in the electrical business will happily tell you about “line loss,” and the fact that a good percentage of existing generation capacity is lost in transmission from the generating facility to the users. That concern is usually brushed aside by advocates, who will tell you about a “smart grid” and how that will solve the problem. Except it doesn’t exist yet. We don’t even have actual designs and ready-to-go technology yet, let alone started on building it.
I’m picking on the green energy advocates, but really, it’s a common problem with advocates of all stripes. Health care reform. Environmental protection. Agriculture. Urban design. Manufacturing. You name it, they all have a perfect solution. Except, they aren’t. To me, there is no perfect. But, there is Very Good. That means that you’re showing me you’ve thought about implementation, the problems that will be faced, and have realistic plans to handle them as they arise. I’ll get behind you if you show me very good. I won’t if you’re trying to sell me perfect. Because your perfect solution isn’t perfect.