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Nobody takes the renewable energy transition seriously

May 20, 2020

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Despite all the demands from climate activists, scientists, and even policy makers, hardly a single country is taking the shift to renewable energy seriously. Even countries and regions that claim to be working toward an energy transition are failing to do what would be required in order for the transition to succeed. What’s behind this surprising and disturbing state of affairs?

The energy transition is a big job, it’s complicated, and it needs to be done quickly if we are to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Therefore, it can’t just be left to the whims of the market. Yes, if solar panels produce electricity cheaper than coal power plants do, then more households and businesses will buy solar panels. But the energy transition demands far more than this: it requires either finding ways to hook up millions of new intermittent power sources in such a way as to provide electricity that matches demand day and night, summer and winter, or giving up on the luxury of having 24-7 access to power at our fingertips. And it requires finding ways to curtail the energy demands of manufacturing and transport systems and to run those streamlined systems on renewable electricity rather than solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels.

In short, it requires a plan. Small teams of academic researchers have already attempted to provide transition plans, but so far these are little more than schematic suggestions based on assumptions that are typically over-optimistic and untested. A serious plan would, of course, be constantly revised on the basis of new findings and changing circumstances. Nevertheless, without a serious and detailed plan, and one endorsed by high-level policy makers, we cannot hope to achieve much.

A serious energy transition plan would start with a goal—not just the general target of “zero-carbon energy,” but a vision of an end state whose details derive from the specific characteristics of renewable energy sources. This goal would need to be both realistic and desirable.

Crucially, the plan and its goal would address the problem of scale. When our team at Post Carbon Institute spent a year studying the opportunities and roadblocks of a renewable energy transition, we concluded that industrial nations like the United States would have to scale back their overall energy usage considerably—perhaps by three-quarters or more—in order to get along without fossil fuels. If that’s really the case, then a serious plan should identify ways to reduce energy usage substantially, sector by sector, and not just through efficiency gains. A serious energy transition goal would describe, in detail, a smaller economy that nevertheless meets people’s genuine needs.

Another mark of a truly serious effort at energy transition would be a proof-of-concept experiment. Why not transition a small industrial city right away? That would mean running not just its electrical power system on renewables, but its transport system and food system as well, while also supplying heat for its homes. The concrete for its roads and buildings would be made using renewable electricity, as would the glass for its windows. The experiment would have to be subsidized, with the understanding that many technologies used in it might get cheaper later on as they are deployed at scale. But costs would nevertheless be calculated and fed back into the overall iterative plan. This experimental approach would provide an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Adjustments would be made on the fly.

As I’ve already implied, one of the biggest challenges to a wholesale shift to renewable energy is that solar and wind generators produce electricity, while existing transport systems, food systems, building heating systems, resource extraction systems, and manufacturing operations typically depend on gas, oil, or even coal. There are two ways of matching new energy supplies with current energy usage patterns: electrify the end use (for example, by building millions of battery-powered electric cars); or use electricity to make a fuel that works in existing technologies (for example, by building factories that use electricity to extract hydrogen from water, and that then combine the hydrogen with carbon from the atmosphere to produce a hydrocarbon liquid, so that internal combustion-engine cars can be fueled indirectly by solar and wind power). Both approaches have costs and drawbacks. Which is better, and in what circumstances? What are the likely unintended environmental, economic, and social consequences? It’s hard to know without doing real-world experiments that involve integrated systems—i.e., actual people working with actual materials and energy supplies on farms and in factories within actual communities and ecosystems.

By the way: when you read about towns or regions already running on “100 percent renewable energy,” look closer. Typically, what that means is “100 percent renewable electricity,” with the great majority of overall energy usage (usually around 80 percent) still occurring by way of fossil fuels. Also, many places with very high percentages of electricity coming from renewables—such as Quebec and Norway—benefit from unusually large supplies of hydro power. And then there are municipalities that achieve the “100 percent renewable” goal only by purchasing renewable energy credits. The experimental city I am envisioning does not currently exist. But if we are serious about the energy transition, we need to retrofit or build one right away.

I should note that our team considers nuclear power an even more challenging substitute for fossil fuels than solar or wind power. If you have a differing opinion on that point, the electrification challenge still remains, as does the requirement for a detailed plan, which has to include safety, security, and waste management measures.

A plan would specify the means for its fulfilment. How much money would be needed, and over what period of expenditure? What kinds of raw materials, in what quantities? How many workers, with which skills? And, how much energy would have to be devoted to the job? The numbers, in each case, are likely to be boggling; that’s one of the main reasons our team concluded that highly industrialized countries should aim to shrink their economies as they make the transition.

A plan would entail stages of completion, with targets and evaluations at each stage. Such a plan would also require sound leadership and social cohesion. Leaders would need to communicate clearly why the transition is needed, what sacrifices will be required, and what rewards can be anticipated. The scale of the leadership challenge for the energy transition can be compared with the extraordinary requirements during the current pandemic: in both instances, leaders must successfully motivate large majorities of citizens to change behaviors and expectations, and to maintain unusual levels of effort over long stretches of time.

By pointing out that little of what is required for a successful energy transition is currently in place, I’m not intending to sow despair or discouragement—only realism. Everyone knows that current US federal executive leadership has no interest in developing a renewable energy transition plan, but Green New Deal proposals from the Democratic opposition have been carefully framed to avoid mentioning difficulties and tradeoffs. Until national leaders around the globe start taking the energy transition seriously, there is little hope of it actually happening. Right now, we have no shared plan other than to bumble our way along until fossil fuels deplete or climate change undermines civilization, whichever comes first, while making half-hearted gestures at building add-on renewable energy supplies. Surely, we can do better. We don’t need a perfect plan in order to begin, but we do need one—and it has to be serious.

[Addendum, mainly for energy policy nerds:

None of what I have said above is meant to obscure the multitudinous efforts under way globally to develop renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, within the US, California has the most comprehensive set of incentives and penalties and the clearest focus. The central document laying out the state’s energy policy is the 2019 Integrated Energy Policy Report. The state’s end goals have been updated over time as prior goals were met. For instance, Executive Order S-03-05 Schwarzenegger set the goal of GHG emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; and EO B-55-18 Brown targeted statewide carbon neutrality by 2045.

The SB 32 GHG emission targets for 2030 of 40 percent below 1990 levels were achieved by the electricity sector in 2017. Renewable electricity is the easiest part of the energy transition, as is reflected by that sector’s achievement of its goal 13 years ahead of schedule.

Other strategies are set forth in various laws and programs, including more aggressive energy efficiency of buildings and appliances, funding for electrification of transportation, development of a comprehensive car charging network, funding to increase energy efficiency in industrial food processing facilities, increasing and developing storage to absorb excess solar production, utilizing grid management to support transition goals, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and CARB’s Cap and Trade program. One of the reasons California has been able to develop so many different and somewhat coordinated programs is that the state now has a third consecutive governor who is making climate change a priority. This has created a consistent direction for the key state energy agencies. 

However, these various efforts have not been folded into an integrated plan with related policies, investments, and piloting.

So, while California does have a plan of sorts for an energy transition, its plan is still framed within the narrative of a growth-based economy and deals mostly with decarbonizing the grid. Serious gaps that have not been addressed include high-heat industrial processes, aviation, imported materials, and embodied energy. Demonstration projects have focused on specific technologies, such as microgrids, not on the integrated energy, transport, food, waste, water, resource extraction, and manufacturing systems on which every city, region, and country depends.

The situation is generally similar for other nations, regions, and cities often cited as examples of leadership in the energy transition. Hard work is being done, but relatively little overall progress is being made toward the ultimate goal of ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. That is likely to continue being the case until serious transition goals and plans are adopted, and integrated, multisectoral, regional experiments are undertaken.

Many thanks to David Fridley and Jared Babula, who were consultants for this article.]