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Sergio Feitoza Costa's picture
Director - Eng, M.Sc Cognitor Consultancy, R&D, Training

Sergio Feitoza created COGNITOR Consultancy, R&D and Training in 1996. Applies trainings and consulting on design, specification and testing of equipment for substations (switchgear...

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Comment on speech of Bill Gates, to world Leaders @ “ Summit Climate” -- Improve old technologies – Forget new ones (case: electric showers)

image credit: Photo by the author

Since Rio 92 Summit, 30 years ago I see unfulfilled commitments being postponed to 20 years later, and the Planet being destroyed. The  Greenhouse Effect ,extinction of animals, destruction of forests in  Amazonia are  just the most visible aspects of hundreds of issues. One of them, much less visible, are the world-wide technical standards  never mentioning  "avoid waste, improve durability, reduce the waste of resources". Most technical standards are prepared only under the view of short-term engineering and business.

It called my attention, the speech of Bill Gates, to world leaders, at the April’s 2021 “Leaders’ Summit on Climate”, about avoiding a climate disaster. He said to be impossible to meet goals using today’s technology, because all of today’s zero-carbon technologies are more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. Mentioned three steps as necessary (no mention to the word Education):

  • To develop technologies that allow to eliminate emissions.
  • Tap the power of markets to fund and deploy innovations to compete with fossil fuels.
  • To adopt policies to accelerate / make cheaper the transition, rewarding who need to take difficult measures.

All the necessary technologies exist for decades They are considered unfeasible, as in the Gattes words, only because the world regulatory agencies do not include “environmental and social costs”, in the energy tariff paid by taxpayers. We do not need new technologies. We need to improve the existing ones and share them with non-developed countries. The shorter way is to change the logics of stablishing energy prices world-wide and give Education to all.

In this article I show a domestic example of easy reduction of wasting of resources. I show the case of electric showers. I could use other examples from my book. However, the resistance of my shower failed again yesterday, and I identified the reason.  Can be solved just including a single test detail in technical standards. Good intentions are easier to be perceived when come from small things monitored in our daily life, and not 10 or 20 uncertain years after, as the promises in the “Leaders’ Summit on Climate”.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 29, 2021

That's an interesting perspective, Sergio-- while I think Gates is trying to focus on the big picture gamechangers, he's also the one responsible for all the great positive impacts from malaria nets in Africa showing how a simple and effective tool can have great impact-- so I wonder if he'd ever throw his weight behind any similar energy efficiency tech

Sergio Feitoza Costa's picture
Sergio Feitoza Costa on Apr 30, 2021

Hi Matt . Thanks for the comment. The World knows that Gates is a positive person related to environment issues. Many well-prepared persons, as he,  have the old view that new technologies are a solution. Wind and sun techs came before coal, oil, and natural gas. In the 70-80s, US D.O.E , invested on calculating environmental externalities.(costs not included in the energy bill)  However instead of implementing the long-term concept short-term programs like PURPA act were implemented. We are now in a much worst situation. I was used to show this figure in my trainings when I was an innocent Brazilian engineer. Regards and congratulations for the good work done by Energy Central.EnviroCosts

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Apr 29, 2021

Sergio, you talk about a specific problem with the heating elements of an electric shower unit. That problem is one small example of a much larger and more general problem -- which happens to be the same problem that Bill Gates was indirectly addressing in his statements about the need for new and better clean energy technologies. Our economic system uses price and profits as surrogates for value. The market conceals external costs. "The cheapest wins" is fundamental. 

From a market perspective, the poorly designed heating elements with contacts that burn out in one year are not poorly designed at all. They reduce the manufacturing cost of the shower units slightly and make them more attractive to consumers. At the same time, the need to replace a burned out heating cartridge every year generates a profitable revenue stream for the company selling them. Gates is observing that the same dynamic applies in energy markets. Solutions that are cheap by virtue of external costs passed on to society at large outcompete cleaner solutions that appear more expensive. 

Since Gates is firmly committed to the free market system that causes the problem, he puts his faith in innovation. New technologies can be inherently clean while being cheaper than the older technologies they aim to replace. There's some logic to that. I can't help but feel, though, that we'd all be better off if we could learn to focus on deeper values. I'd like to see us break the back of "the cheapest wins" consumer mentality. Kick "pursuit of profit" off its pedestal, and elevate contribution to the community in its place.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 29, 2021

"Kick pursuit of profit' off its pedestal, and elevate contribution to the community in its place."

Hear hear! That we can protect the environment by increasing consumption is a self-defeating proposition.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 30, 2021

 I'd like to see us break the back of "the cheapest wins" consumer mentality.

I'd like to see that, too-- but in a natural capitalist environment I'm not sure that will ever really win out. That's where the government intervention has to come in play-- whether through regulation, R&D, tax incentives, or otherwise. Many people understandably want to limit government interference as much as possible and let the market decide, but I think you put extremely well why that isn't always in the general population's best interest

Sergio Feitoza Costa's picture
Sergio Feitoza Costa on Apr 30, 2021

Thank you very much for the comments. It is worth reading this EPRI book (1993), about energy technologies and their costs. I believe that, at that moment, the world was still trying to find solutions to avoid a disaster in the Planet. But the option chosen was just "enjoy the best possible until it is over".

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Sergio Feitoza Costa on May 1, 2021

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