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Between populist environmental activism and conservative stagnation

image credit: Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

The energy sector has to cope with some major changes in the last few years, but the era of disruptive change seems to have started officially with the signing of the climate agreement in Paris. Among the main developments which we currently observe in the market, we find a transition towards a more sustainable energy era that includes Renewable transition, Integration, Electrification, Distributed generation, etc. It is undisputed that the race for renewable energy as a direct alternative to fossil fuel-based energy is conspicuous.

Subsequently, we all witness prima facie the progressing world, but sometimes there are signs that it is moving towards a real madness.

A young girl, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, became a nominee for Nobel Peace Prize and a holder of an honorary doctorate from a university in Belgium - all because she organized "climate strikes" at school and received wide media coverage.

She and her supporters specialize in black-and-white messages and catchy slogans; without complexity, and without any systematic examination of alternatives. Apparently, Thunberg was taught that "fossil fuels are bad," kind of complete evil, and she understood it literally, to the extreme. "Those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white," said Thunberg, who is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome on the autistic spectrum. No wonder, these black-and-white messages dominate her and her supporters' agenda.

History has shown that populist calls to action, while accompanied by destructive and unsustainable actions, such as in this case "a Call to reduce carbon emissions to zero at all costs", might cause enormous damage to humans, in this case probably far beyond the damage caused by climate change itself.

Experience has shown that artificially pushing investment in renewable energy has caused significant damage and, if at all, negligible benefit. Sweden, Thunberg's homeland, is already experiencing significant difficulties in the energy economy due to the closure of nuclear reactors. Germany, which has invested hundreds of billions in wind and solar energy, suffers from energy problems and a very high electricity bill.

According to UN criteria, 94 percent of the world's population lived in "extreme poverty" in early nineteen century -earning less than $ 2 a day, and nowadays the poorest account for less than 8 percent.

Are we really prepared for the continued rise in energy prices and the continued problems of energy supply from renewable energy that replaces traditional energy sources as a direct alternative? If 100% renewable energy at all cost is the goal - will we be prepared to allow the weaker sectors of the population to have to pay a huge socio-economic price, to the extent that the percentage of the poor who cannot afford energy costs increases significantly?

There is no point in criticizing Thunberg for her simplistic view of the world. She's just a young girl. But the world leaders, who bear it on their shoulders, and those who are responsible for spending a fortune on useless steps, should be blamed making wrong calculations of cost versus benefit, and especially for adopting black-and-white approaches.

History and reality dictate that adopting "black and white" attitudes often results in the opposite of what was expected. I do not suggest stopping the transition to the widespread use of renewable energy. The opposite is true. The question is whether the change occurs most effectively? Since the global experience in combating climate change shows huge investments in renewables and almost zero results, the answer seems to be negative.

In the same breath, I will note that "calls to action", such as the reduction of carbon emissions to zero, is not justified. The question is: what would be the effective and appropriate way to achieve sustainable Energy Transition?

Life does not really follow the patterns of "black and white." A blind rush toward renewable energy has already generated a significant economic price for a number of countries; while on the other hand, the vast majority of countries abstaining from implementing renewable energy in the electricity grid, will have to bear a significant price in the foreseeable future.

We must avoid extremism, whether it is the extremes of environmental activists and the extremism of conservatives. The choice between populist madness leading to an extreme shift to sustainable energy at any cost and total blindness of conservatives to Climate problems is not really correct and appropriate under the circumstances.

The Energy Transition must be gradual, environmental activism must be directed to the right channels, and conservatives must internalize that refraining from taking action will inevitably lead to catastrophic consequences. Both history and the actual experience of recent years point to an interim solution as a worthy alternative. Proper implementation of A New Green Deal could serve as a viable solution.  It is quite obvious that any deal becomes viable while the interests of both parties are respected.

Learn more here: Achieving a Green New Deal goals by adopting a "Hybrid Green New Deal" approach

Now let's turn to practical steps:

Utilities:

Corporations and power companies have dominated the energy market from its' very beginning. Nowadays researches claim the utility as we knew it is nearly gone. Business models in which large amounts of money are harvested by simply running power stations, selling megawatt hours and balancing positions do not pay off anymore. Upstream (mainly renewable production) as well as downstream (sales) the utility business model is attacked by new parties entering the market. As the cash flows are diminishing, the space to invest large sums of money is shrinking and the investment horizon is scaled down as well. And thus even without mentioning the problems that the unintended absorption of renewable energy causes local energy economies.

A sad end to a nice story? The opposite is true - there is still an important role for the utility if they organize for it.

Besides and sometimes even instead of investing and developing large-scale renewable power generation facilities and developing grid-scale storage solutions, the utility shall renew its balancing portfolio and incorporate renewables and storage solutions into their offerings for ancillary services.

Few technologies are available to automate the process of demand response. Such technologies detect the need for load shedding, communicate the demand to participating users, automate load shedding, and verify compliance with demand-response programs.

Many important and positive trends are increasing the ability of consumers to truly benefit from grid modernization activities. In particular, as the range of products, devices, and services available on the market continues to expand, it is creating new pathways for customers to be truly interactive with the grid and provide services that can be harvested every day and not only during critical moments. Industry stakeholders generally agree that Customer Choice is the main driver for the changes taking place. They are often cited as the reason for either supporting or rejecting particular initiatives.

The challenge is to understand and predict both current and future customer requirements and to gain their trust as triggers for taking action.

On the customer side, the Energy Transition and particularly as the most obvious solution to the Demand-Response issues - the utility shall facilitate a changing behavior by providing insight into the consumption and production of the customer’s assets. Also, it shall incentivize customers to adapt their usage patterns to the availability of power. Finally, it should help the customer reducing its invoice by the provision of signals of when to consume or produce as well as providing a complimentary services that would allow to end-user to initiate, perform and complete his personal Energy Transition process, and down the line to manage his energy consumption within the framework of future energy reality.

Consumers:

As for the users themselves, taking actions of protest and raising demands on the authorities to take significant steps to reduce pollutant emissions will not necessarily lead to desired results. Experience shows that the authorities are not necessarily aware of the nature of the actions required, and as a result, creates dangerous duality. On the one hand, precipitous actions are taken in the form of large investments in projects whose benefits are in doubt. On the other hand, public protests often lead to stagnation and the absence of any steps.

The question arises - what would have happened if the calls for action taken by the environmental activists were directed at themselves and the general public? What would happen if each of them and at the end of the day each of us would route the agenda of private sustainability toward our home, towards our immediate surroundings?

In accordance to numerous researches, Energy Savings and ultimately overall carbon imprint reduction by Changing People’s Behavior could reach up to 48%! and thus even prior to implementing renewables for self-consumption.

The technology for Energy Transition exists, it gets better but since the obstacles energy transition faces are not technological but rather psychological, financial, behavioral, etc., they must be addressed accordingly while considering rather human behavioral biases and motivational triggers, and not solely technological solutions. Since the Energy Transition is a change, succeeding in making such a change requires considering more peoples' decision making process suited approach than just offering different technological solutions. Change can be difficult and people go through some key stages when making a change. Yet, as soon as the majority of people realize the true power of their own actions, instead of constantly blaming authorities, the Energy Transition will occur.

For those who are interested, Practical steps for the Mitigation of Climate Change - Overview of the suggested cost-efficient transition to Sustainable Energy Consumption in the residential sector could serve as a roadmap.

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 1, 2019

There is no point in criticizing Thunberg for her simplistic view of the world. She's just a young girl. But the world leaders, who bear it on their shoulders, and those who are responsible for spending a fortune on useless steps, should be blamed making wrong calculations of cost versus benefit, and especially for adopting black-and-white approaches.

Well said-- critics who target Greta are missing the point completely, something that the presence of a brave young person on the world's stage should highlight. I appreciate you bringing up the utilities' role in how to address these issues, as well as what individuals can do. There's a lot of debate about how reasonable it is to push personal responsibility, since it's the corporations rather than the individuals who are arguably responsible for the situation we're in, but I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with also encouraging personal responsibility in action (so long as that doesn't cause us to remove from the fire the feet of the large corporations who have the ability to single handedly make much more of an impact)

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 2, 2019

"In the same breath, I will note that 'calls to action', such as the reduction of carbon emissions to zero, is not justified."

Tal, then you disagree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprising the world's leading experts on climate change, which determined ten years ago that

"...fossil fuel power generation without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology would need to be 'phased out almost entirely by 2100'".

Who's in a position to make the radical changes necessary to end the use of fossil fuel? Could it be that concerted individual effort could prove effective for stopping climate change?

"What would happen if each of them and at the end of the day each of us would route the agenda of private sustainability toward our home, towards our immediate surroundings...as soon as the majority of people realize the true power of their own actions, instead of constantly blaming authorities, the Energy Transition will occur."

Here's what would happen: nothing. Relying on self-interest to solve a societal problem is a recipe for failure. Always has been, always will be. If we expect everyone to kick in, do their part, and work together (known as the "Kum-Ba-Ya Syndrome", which views coöperation as the default human condition) we will only ensure suffering on a scale unseen before in human history.

We need not to blame authorities, but hold authorities of the world's wealthiest countries accountable for a problem entirely of their own making. We need to invest in nuclear energy - the only technology capable of providing an abundant source of sustainable, reliable, clean electricity, together with transmission to make it available to everyone in society. We need do it as quickly as possible, starting within our own borders.

It's on us - not on a non-binding "Paris Accord", not on "Chindia" or any developing country. It's on us.

Tal Paperany's picture
Tal Paperany on Jul 3, 2019

Hi Bob, 

I'd notice that few lines after the sentence you mention I have added:

"We must avoid extremism, whether it is the extremes of environmental activists and the extremism of conservatives. The choice between populist madness leading to an extreme shift to sustainable energy at any cost and total blindness of conservatives to Climate problems is not really correct and appropriate under the circumstances.

The Energy Transition must be gradual, environmental activism must be directed to the right channels, and conservatives must internalize that refraining from taking action will inevitably lead to catastrophic consequences"...

"History and reality dictate that adopting "black and white" attitudes often results in the opposite of what was expected. I do not suggest stopping the transition to the widespread use of renewable energy. The opposite is true."

My point is that pouring outrages amounts into renewables without involving consumers into the Energy Transition process is not a smart idea - results are quite clear already.

The process shall be the creation of a new energy economy and not just switching energy source by another one.

And as per your remarks concerning "Kum-Ba-Ya Syndrome", which views coöperation as the default human condition) we will only ensure suffering on a scale unseen before in human history" - I tend to agree with you on my own experience basis, but only partially.

You see - people won't take measures unless they face undeniable losses - Prospect Theory (Nobel Prize winner in Economy)

Yet, those obvious losses (which are not obvious to consumers yet, I mean not obvious for each particular consumer on a personal level), should be delivered to them by utilities via CX (customers experience).

AS soon as utilities would realize the enormous impact of proper CX as an interaction tool and message /education/etc. delivery and/or data gathering/data analysis/etc.  tools, both parties will benefit. For example,  this most definitely would assist in handling Demand-Response issues, creation of new business models (such as Energy as a Service) etc.

And by the way, I agree that nuc energy, produced in small scale reactors, should definitely be utilized as a complementary/secondary energy source during  Energy Transition process and afterward :)

 

"

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 3, 2019

Thanks for your clarification, Tal.

"I do not suggest stopping the transition to the widespread use of renewable energy. The opposite is true."

This is where we disagree. To illustrate why, I'll use a quote from a 1979 speech of President Jimmy Carter, which came to be known as his "Crisis in Confidence" speech. Given in the wake of the OPEC Oil Embargo, the crisis to which the speech referred was not climate change, but energy availability - for the first time, Americans recognized the possibility we might run out of gasoline. Among other goals, Carter predicted

"I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of this nation’s first solar bank which will help us achieve the crucial goal of twenty percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000."

Not long ago I did a back-of-napkin calculation of how long it would take to achieve Carter's goal, based on the actual amount of progress we had achieved by 2000. I came up with 830 years, a number which has been challenged as both too high and too low, but the bottom line is this: renewables have already failed us as a solution for climate change. It's not because of some mystery technology or price point we have yet to discover - due to fundamental physical limits, powering the Earth with 100% renewable energy is a goal which will be literally impossible to achieve.

Recognized by physicists and engineers at the time as political posturing, the speech was gobbled up by a public schooled more in environmentalism than physics. Americans watched Carter mount solar panels on the roof of the White House (they were useless), and embraced his prediction as not only being possible, but just around the corner.

Over the course of history "common sense" has prevailed over wisdom many times. That the Earth is flat, or the center of the universe, stood as fact for centuries until evidence to the contrary became irrefutable (the second landed Galileo in prison). Now, ironically, common sense tells us the sun could be the center of our energy universe - another conceit of humankind with no basis in science. It, too, would be proven wrong over the course of centuries, but this time we don't have centuries to wait.

Tal Paperany's picture

Thank Tal for the Post!

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