Technology alone won’t save humanity from the climate, ecological and social crises we’re struggling to resolve. A critical mass of people must temper self-centred attitudes, consumption-oriented lifestyles and an endless desire for more. Only then are we going to successfully create a better world.

An awareness of the need for this kind of social transformation is growing and technological advances are not leading the way. Technology is merely an indicator of where we’re headed, like someone pointing to a destination on a map.

Everyone notices how quickly technology is changing, but more seasoned individuals have the benefit of witnessing these changes over decades and the advances become even more astounding from this perspective. More importantly, our path is revealed by these long-term developments, imperfect as they may be.

The Internet opened to the general public in 1991, and even though dial-up modems were incredibly slow, the World Wide Web immediately began to change the way we lived and worked. Imagine trying to function now without text messaging, email or video conferencing.

In 1990, I was researching error correction algorithms that my employer planned to use for sending data over military wireless networks. Throughput was very slow over wireless, so the extra encoding had to be minimal and the state-of-the-art was only good enough to correct one or two errors in a block of data.

For several days, I popped by the National Science Library in Ottawa and read through books describing various error correction algorithms. Eventually, I found something that met our needs, took the book out from the library and spent a few more days writing up a specification that detailed the math as well as the process for encoding and decoding the data.

After a peer review, I gave the specification to our software engineering team and they produced the error correction code. From start to finish, the task took over a month, but we were also working on other things in parallel.

As a comparative experiment, I asked ChatGPT to write me an algorithm with the Python programming language to encode and decode data using the BCH error correction algorithm we implemented in our system many years ago. Within a few seconds, I had the code ready for testing.

In just over 30 years, the performance improvements and cost savings in the engineering process have been nothing short of miraculous. Similarly, relentless technological advances have seen solar panels progress from simply heating water for residential swimming pools to utility-scale solar farms like the Philippines’ newly announced 3.5-gigawatt (GW) project, with four GW hours (GWh) of battery storage.

The relentless technological advances have seen innovations such as solar panels progress from simply heating water for residential swimming pools to utility-scale solar farms, writes Rob Miller @winexus #renewables #electricity #ClimatePollution

Electric cars have gone from children’s toys with limited functionality to Tesla’s Model Y becoming the top-selling vehicle in the world. The first wind farm was completed 40 years ago and generated 0.6 megawatts (MW) at maximum capacity, producing enough electricity in an hour to power the Model Y for nearly 3,500 kilometres.

By 2022, over 900 GW of wind capacity had been deployed globally, with the largest offshore wind turbine capable of generating 16 MW for a maximum hourly output that could power a Model Y for over 90,000 kilometres.

Solutions are also being developed to improve the efficiency of electrified-product life cycles through recycling, using more sustainable materials and developing longer-lasting battery technology.

It doesn’t take a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) to infer where our energy system is headed. Technological advances will continue to make clean energy and electrification more cost-competitive and desirable.

When petroleum was the new energy alternative in the early 1900s, technology was developed to reduce costs and increase production. New products using this inexpensive fuel hit the market, like automobiles, airplanes and heating-oil furnaces. The growth trend continued until demand began seriously ramping up in the 1960s.

Electrification and renewable energy are now technologies on a trajectory for exponential growth. Solar and wind energy costs have plummeted and battery-powered products are emerging, from e-bikes to electric transport trucks. Heat pumps and carbon-free district energy are now heating nearly 200 million homes around the world. For many applications, clean energy is already displacing coal, oil and natural gas.

The fossil fuel industry has known about its greenhouse gas (GHG) problem for over 50 years and in all that time has been unable to scale a technology that will eliminate its GHG emissions. In fact, the industry’s emissions have steadily increased to over 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. This is a clear indication that Big Oil can’t economically solve its problem. Its technology has plateaued and is ripe for disruption.

It’s a tragedy that some people are still fighting for a way of life that will wreak havoc on future generations. The fossil industry and its supporters have lost sight of their responsibility to serve society and believe they can manipulate us into complacency. But one only has to look at the most rapidly advancing technologies to see a sunnier future is on the horizon.

Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action, but any opinions expressed in his work are his own.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
January 26, 2024, 11:15 am

Energy storage capacity is expressed in GW hours (GWh). This was incorrectly stated as GW in reference to the Philippines’ energy storage project.

Keep reading

Many thanks, Rob. I added a comment to the "YouTube Climate Doomers" story that was a super-short version of that, noting that any "doomers" are just going to be humiliated by the actual progress that will make all their dooming look silly.

One thing - when this mistake happens - about weekly, in PostMedia or The Tyee, or here - I get all insulty a the "innumerate" journalists that just don't understand the difference between power (in gigawatts) and stored energy (in gigawatt-hours).

Here, the same damn mistake happens ("3.5 GW of power and '4 GW' of storage", when I know you meant '4 GWh of storage'), and the journalist is very numerate indeed, I'm wondering if the problem is an editor so used to the mistake that he actually "corrects" journalists trying to properly express storage in GWh. Did Rob write it correctly, and have the mistake inserted by an editor? Or are even engineers who write error-correction algorithms prone to this one dumb mistake? It just that I saw this same mistake TWICE in postmedia just last week (Herald and Van.Sun) and it's becoming a real frustration for me.

Hi Roy,
Thanks for pointing out the error. I do understand that energy storage capacity should be in GWh, but I made the mistake and failed to notice when I read through the piece before submitting it. I'll submit a correction in the morning. Sorry about that.