Back in 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave a press conference in which he differentiated three different concepts related to the conduct of the Iraq War. These were: "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns." The statement was mocked in the media at the time as a bit of obfuscating word-salad, but terminology has increasingly been embraced as a way to evaluate risk assessment. There are things we know that we know and things that we know that we don't know. And we must assume that there are things that we don't know that we don't know.
These terms -- or at least the first two of them -- are helpful for considering the options for powering our civilization. If we look across the various means of generating the electricity required for the modern world, and the costs of delivery through those various means, all of our recent decisions have been odd. That's because of our insistence on leaning in to the known unknowns. We never can know the cost of electricity from supposedly “sustainable” wind and solar methods of generation for the simple reason that we can’t know when the sun will shine or the wind will blow in the appropriate Goldilocks amounts: not too much, not too little, just right.
Will we install too many windmills? Too few solar panels? We can’t know. Planning an ever-more electric future on a strategy of unknowns is fanciful and naïve. And, really just not very smart for any first world country. Not knowing the costs means not knowing the price or the numbers of wind- and solar-farms required to deliver the affordable electricity required to make modernity sustainable.
And how about our long-term planning? Do we know where we will source balsa for blades once we’ve stripped our rain forests? Any thoughts on how we make the plastics required for so-called renewable energy once we've "transitioned" away from oil and gas? Do we know where our we will mine for lithium to make batteries once we’ve exhausted the current supply, or China locks us out of the market?
It ain't pretty but it works.
Moreover, the powers that be in our country reject systems and methods whose costs are knowable -- how much cost for how much electricity, from extraction to consumption and the costs of creating and disposing of the generators over time, whether from natural gas, oil, coal, or nuclear. So for the time being, and on our current trajectory, our energy bills will be a constant surprise with no fallback to known knowns. How does a modern manufacturer plan or make or deliver products when the input costs are unknown?
Meanwhile China, our great geopolitical rival, is opening one new coal plant per week. Their energy sources and costs are predictable, which is why the millions of jobs that we've exported over there won't be repatriated anytime soon.
Sorry to say, the Chinese model is what real sustainability looks like, both for an energy source and for a nation. They're attempting to build their proverbial house on the rock of known knowns, while we are building ours on the sand of known unknowns. If we don't change course soon, by building up our oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear capacity, we will be overtaken and surpassed. What that looks like in practice is unknown. But you can bet it won't be pleasant.