Can Lego save the world? That’s one concept that caught with me studying How Large Issues Get Completed, a brand new ebook by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Flyvbjerg is maybe the world’s main authority on the failure of megaprojects — or how huge issues get executed, however woefully late and at woeful price — and so he makes an unlikely optimist.
Over the many years, Flyvbjerg, a administration professor at Oxford college, has assembled a database of enormous initiatives from high-speed rail traces to internet hosting the Olympics. His findings are so dismal that he has proposed the “Iron Legislation of Megaprojects”: they’re over time and over price range, again and again. Even worse, there’s a lengthy tail to those disappointments. A big minority of megaprojects will not be simply late and costly, however catastrophically so.
Regardless of this gloomy proof, he and Gardner make the case that we might work wonders if as an alternative we used a precept most acquainted from Lego units. That precept is modularity: a posh Lego mannequin is assembled from a restricted vary of bricks, every of which is precision-manufactured and interchangeable with different bricks.
Modularity has a number of benefits. The primary is that the person elements could be manufactured at scale, which quickly reduces prices. Within the Nineteen Thirties, an American aeronautical engineer named TP Wright made a cautious examine of aeroplane factories. He concluded that the extra typically a specific mannequin of aeroplane was assembled, the faster and cheaper the subsequent airplane turned. The employees learnt the most effective methods of working, and particular instruments can be developed to help with specific duties. Wright discovered that the second airplane would sometimes be 15 per cent cheaper than the primary. The fourth can be 15 per cent cheaper than the second, and the eighth airplane 15 per cent cheaper once more. Each time amassed manufacturing doubled, unit prices would fall by 15 per cent. Wright known as this phenomenon “the training curve”.
Later researchers have discovered studying curves in additional than 50 merchandise from transistors to beer. Typically the training curve is shallow and typically it’s steep, nevertheless it all the time appears to be there. And since modular initiatives repeatedly use the identical plans and buildings, they harness the effectivity of the training curve.
There are different benefits to modular initiatives. They’re extra possible to have the ability to use factory-made elements, and once you make advanced issues in factories, you’re much less on the whim of the sudden than once you make them on a constructing web site — particularly if that constructing web site is deep underground or offshore.
By their nature, modular development initiatives are extra possible to have the ability to hold going even when there’s a drawback with one aspect of the construction. This helps clarify why, in Flyvbjerg’s database, modular initiatives are all however resistant to probably the most dramatic “black swan” price overruns, that are all the time a threat for different giant initiatives.
Such are the fun of modularity. Now flip to the issue of local weather change, and an intriguing sample emerges. Low-carbon vitality initiatives embrace among the most modular and the least modular designs in Flyvbjerg’s database. Photo voltaic and wind are on the modular finish, whereas nuclear and hydroelectric initiatives are on the reverse pole. Maybe no shock, then, that photo voltaic and wind initiatives are quickly falling in worth.
I’ve no objection in precept to nuclear energy, however I ponder whether it can ever be attainable to make clear, protected nuclear energy at an inexpensive price, until nuclear crops are capable of change to a a lot smaller, extra modular design. Nuclear energy stations have been supplying energy to the grid because the mid-Fifties, however they by no means appear to get less expensive, maybe as a result of we’ve got been unable to repeat the identical designs typically sufficient to climb the training curve. I hold studying information tales about corporations with huge plans for small reactors, so maybe it’s not unattainable.
Nonetheless, the distinction with photo voltaic vitality is hanging. Silicon photovoltaic cells began supplying sensible energy across the similar time: the American satellite tv for pc Vanguard 1 was the primary to make use of them, carrying six photo voltaic panels into orbit in 1958. (The solar all the time shines in house, and what else are you going to make use of to energy a multimillion-dollar satellite tv for pc?) On the time, these photo voltaic panels produced half a watt at what was little doubt a painfully excessive price.
By the mid-Seventies, photo voltaic panels had been all the way down to $100 a watt, or $10,000 for sufficient panels to energy a lightbulb. By 2021, the associated fee was lower than 27 cents a watt. Why? That is the training curve in motion. The training curve for photovoltaic cells has been estimated to be 20 per cent per doubling — steeper than for aeroplanes.
Chris Goodall, creator of The Swap, notes that the world produced 100 occasions extra photo voltaic cells between 2010 and 2016 than it had in all of the many years earlier than 2010. Batteries — an necessary modular complement to photo voltaic PV cells — are additionally racing down a steep studying curve. There’s a comparable story to be advised about wind energy. Wind generators are product of standardised elements, and a wind farm is product of standardised generators. The worth of wind energy, too, has fallen sooner than most proponents might have dreamt two or three many years in the past.
I’m no professional on nuclear vitality, however I’m assured that modular reactors ought to be attainable. I hope so. We want huge issues to occur in our capacity to generate clear vitality. And the easiest way to go huge is to start out with small, repeatable blocks.
Written for and first revealed within the Monetary Instances on 27 January 2023.
My first kids’s ebook, The Reality Detective is out on 15 March (not US or Canada but – sorry).
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