Our world is filled with ‘black boxes’ - gadgets, machines or systems which produce an effect and most of us have absolutely no idea how they did it.
Sometimes comprehending the inner workings doesn’t really matter. We don’t need to understand how a washing machine works to know it gets our clothes clean.
Black box examples
The hectic pace of modern life has made black boxes pervasive, and often result from our unwillingness to take the time to learn how things work.
Take Google search for example. It helps us find stuff on the web but few understand or care about the complex algorithm involved in getting us our results.
Or hot dogs. We scarf them back happily, not knowing or wanting to know how they were created and what ingredients might be in them. (As someone once said, never watch a sausage being made – you’ll never eat another one again.)
And garbage collection. We set our trash out and it disappears. We don’t think too much about where it goes or what happens to it once it’s gone.
Black boxes may be fine for some things, but there are aspects of our world which should probably never be that opaque.
Financial markets come to mind. We should want to know exactly what it is we’re investing in so we can properly assess the risk. (Mortgage-backed securities anyone?)
Our judicial system is another mechanism which should never be a black box. We need to see how laws are applied and how people are being treated by the state.
We argue that energy systems shouldn’t be black boxes either. Yet, most of us flip on the light switch with little or no thought about where that electricity was produced or how it got to our homes. We fill up our cars with fuel not considering where the crude oil feedstock came from or how it was refined.
How energy is produced can differ significantly, even within a single country, such as Canada, as this energy map from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Canadian Geographic illustrates. Who knew 9.8 per cent of Nova Scotia’s primary energy production was crude oil? Or that 98.1 per cent of Quebec’s is hydro?
Regardless of whether its oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, nuclear power or another energy source that we rely on, there is an extensive network of pipelines and transmission wires in place to connect us to the energy we demand. It’s the interconnections between energy sources, vast distribution networks and the population that constitutes an energy system. In Canada's energy system, according to CAPP/Canadian Geographic, primary energy production comes from multiple sources, including natural gas (43 per cent), crude oil (40 per cent), coal (8 per cent), hydro (7 per cent) and nuclear (2 per cent).
Energy: learning more
No one can seriously argue that our fossil fuels-based energy system does not need to change, especially given the challenge of climate change. But it’s difficult to change a system if there isn’t fundamental knowledge about how the current system functions.
Transitioning between energy systems is complex, time-consuming and involves tradeoffs. And the changes we make will impact everyone and ultimately be inherited by our kids.
So let’s make 2014 the year we take energy systems out of the black box and bring their inner-working into the light.