Six days after turning 100 in 1987, my Scottish grandmother Bessie Mahood chose to leave. Not long before, she had compared her first trip from Scotland to Vancouver—two weeks of difficult travel—to her half-day flight as an octogenarian to the old country. Grandma was proud to have witnessed in her lifetime the greatest advances in technology ever known.
She lived twice as long as expected for women born in the late 19th century and saw unprecedented improvements in transportation, telecommunications, medicine and almost every aspect of human endeavour. Of course, every adult could say the same, because each generation builds on the knowledge of earlier times.
Twenty years ago, Ray Kurzweil wrote that most humans have little understanding about the rate of technological change happening around them, even though it was progressing exponentially. In The Law of Accelerating Returns, he argued:
We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress… There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.
In the journal Nature, Declan Butler wrote:
Kurzweil and others have argued that people find this pace of change almost impossible to grasp, because it is human nature to perceive rates of progress as linear, not exponential… People tend to focus on the past few years, but pulling back reveals a much more dramatic change. Many things that society now takes for granted would have seemed like futuristic nonsense just a few decades ago.
Clearly, climate-change denying politicians and senior bureaucrats in British Columbia remain focused on the past, unwilling to appreciate that after serving the province well for 50 years, destructive old energy technologies are now outdated.
This week, a Massachusetts company announced a utility storage breakthrough that may change the energy industry for the foreseeable future:
Form Energy’s first commercial product is a rechargeable iron-air battery capable of delivering electricity for 100 hours at system costs competitive with conventional power plants and at less than 1/10th the cost of lithium-ion. Made from iron, one of the safest, cheapest, and most abundant minerals on Earth, this front-of-the-meter battery can be used continuously over a multi-day period and will enable a reliable, secure, and fully renewable electric grid year-round.
Ignorance of technology was just one element that allowed the Site C boondoggle to proceed.
Well after construction began, the original $8 billion design for Site C was determined to be unworkable on unstable Peace River lands. John Horgan’s government decided to double down. They increased the budget to $16 billion and crossed fingers, hoping engineering solutions would materialize and electricity would be generated eventually. The also pretended their UNDRIP promise didn’t apply if it involved Indigenous people who had populated northeast British Columbia for millennia.
Whether or not Site C was the best solution for consumers was not considered. As predicted by Kurzweil, the decision makers had little understanding about dramatic technological change occurring in energy. They assumed if hydropower dams made sense in the 20th century, they must be sensible in the 21st.
The cost of alternative power sources had been steadily declining for years and this trend was universally expected to continue. Site C proponents shouted that BC needed new electricity to be dispatchable and only hydropower was appropriate. The claim ignored successes other nations were having with integration of non-destructive renewables.
The shills for Site C have never bothered to explain how the European Union managed to generate 20% of electricity in 2020 using wind and solar power facilities. BC is limited to a relative trickle from those renewables.
Ignorance and Neo-Luddism were not the only factors at work in John Horgan’s cabinet.
A study(1) published in 2019 noted that continuing to invest in a failing plan is a common error of decision making. Academics examined the sunk-cost fallacy in great detail:
Economic theory implies that decision makers’ decisions should only be guided by future gains and losses, as prior costs do not affect the objective outcomes of current decisions. Hence, the normative correct decision in sunk-cost situations is to ignore past investments.
Taking into account past losses or investments is a decision strategy that has been dubbed the ‘Sunk-Cost fallacy’ or ‘Sunk-Cost effect’. It is considered a mistake or faulty strategy. In more neutral terms… the sunk-cost effect refers to the tendency “to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made”.
Researchers noted that anxious individuals might be more sensitive to pressures embedded within sunk-cost situations, and are therefore motivated to continue investing in a failing plan. Studies investigated the role of anticipated regret in committing the sunk-cost fallacy and revealed that commitment to the fallacy is stronger when the possibility of future regret about withdrawal of commitment is high.
The above provides a partial explanation as to why the 2017 NDP government proceeded with Site C. Holding two fewer seats than predecessor Liberals, anxiety in the Premier’s office was high. The NDP was frightened of being accused of wasting three billion dollars by abandoning dam construction. The fears were heightened by advice from interested parties who stood to gain abundant rewards from project continuation.
Favours were owed to interested parties. BC NDP revenue from business and union contributions provide evidence:
Individual contributors of small sums typically donate because they support the philosophical objectives of a political party. The motives of large corporate and union donors are more likely to involve naked self-interest. Promises get made; cheques get written. This has long been the way of Canadian politics.
(1) Dijkstra KA, Hong Y-y (2019) The feeling of throwing good money after bad: The role of affective reaction in the sunk-cost fallacy. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209900
Categories: Site C