Why and How Fast: The Energy Transition
Putting the energy transition and the effort required in perspective.
The answers to these questions provide us with the vision we need to mobilize and the sense of urgency we must convey to prompt necessary action.
Transmission lines and solar photovoltaic cells. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
Why? The Vision Imperative
The answer to the “why” question is straightforward: Decarbonization has become a universal, urgent imperative.
Three words–universal, urgent, and imperative–underscore the answer, connoting priority. Technology changes and business model evolution may drive the other three Ds–decentralization, democratization, and digitalization–but it’s the historic, compelling need to stop pumping gaseous carbon waste into the atmosphere that drives us to replace fossil fuel combustion with high-tech clean electricity.
When I think about climate, the first law of holes comes to mind, which is, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you must do is stop digging.” So, burning fossil fuels–however critical that abundant, effective energy strategy has been so far to our perceived need for the benefits of modern life–should lead us to consider all that CO2 and its lingering effects to drive atmospheric heat and…“stop digging.”
But the very complexity of the “why change” question makes getting to a common consensus an immense political challenge, as those who seek to manage the political debate deploy strategies of confusion and distraction. So, one of the key strategies must start with countering disinformation and misinformation by raising the level of understanding to lift our collective Energy IQ, so we can begin a fact-based discussion on how to proceed and where to place priorities.
A second key challenge is that we have all benefited immensely from applying engineering and technology to create the modern fossil fuel-based energy economy. And put simply, it will be difficult to replace the easy energy of extracting the dense energy of fossil fuels. Laid down over millions of years from decaying biological plants and animals now in the form of buried solids (coal), liquids (petroleum), and gas (natural gas), these fuels lie there, waiting for us to mine, refine, and burn them. Our aversion to abandoning massive investments in infrastructure also stands in the way of change.
A third challenge has to do with energy density and storage. The ability to store and distribute physical quantities of fuel has made our infrastructure convenient and manageable. In contrast, electricity, for all its qualities, has historically lacked an economic storage alternative, so it’s inherently dependent on real-time distribution.
New technologies like solar PV require significant space to produce an equivalent energy density to that offered by fossil fuels. Intensive energy requirements like those of the airline and shipping sectors, steel manufacturing, and concrete production do not readily lend themselves to the new clean energy alternatives.
Solar panels vs. coal. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
How Fast? The Pace Problem
Beyond the why lies a serious talk about timelines, deadlines, priorities, and resources. We face a pace problem, the root of the “how fast” question.
Initially, I defined the pace problem as being electric utility-specific, about an advancing disparity between rapid disruptive change outside the utility sector and slow methodical change inside. But now, my perception looms beyond the electric utility sector.
The pace problem is most evident in the lack of progress with the UN COP process. Governments move too slowly, as do regulators.
The UN website on Climate Change puts the matter succinctly when it says that for a livable climate, net-zero commitments must be backed by credible action.
This UN presents the pace problem as a stark dilemma. We’re simply not getting after the crisis with an effort to match its severity. We need a plan that achieves real results and makes the best use of our available resources at a faster pace than anyone has yet imagined would be possible.
When it comes to innovation, information and telecom are leaps and bounds ahead of energy. Unlike the utility-managed grid, Internet companies embrace the natural concept of emergence that regularly turns the entire system over to novel approaches and new companies. Transformative concepts emerge and commercialize with rapid market acceptance in a Big Bang Disruption economy. Apple, Google (now Alphabet), Amazon, Facebook (now Meta), and Microsoft all leverage data platforms to drive sustainable innovation. While we still have time to turn things around, we simply must harness proven information and communication methods to radically improve our chances to accomplish energy transition and reduce emissions.
I’ve become convinced that the only approach that will meet the dramatic objectives of the Energy Transition in time to make a difference will be a bottom-up, market-based, value-driven approach that redefines the consumer relationship with energy. The pace problem must be met with a solution that is both massively scalable and rapidly implemented. We’ll need market adoption akin to smartphone adoption.
The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 redefined both the telecom and computing markets. According to Statista, smartphone annual sales grew from $122 million in 2007 to $1.5 billion in 2016. Oberlo estimates the number of global smartphone users at 6.8 billion, a 4.2% annual increase and an increase of 3.2 billion (86.5%) smartphone users in 2016.
The shift from landline to mobile to smartphones over a single generation reflects the remarkable growth of value driven by a combination of technological advances in smartphone capabilities and features, ever-improving telecom networks, and creative business models that introduced such innovations as Apps, eCommerce, Social Networking and Video Streaming. Today’s smartphones are nothing like the telephones from 30 years ago, and AI will drive further changes in the years ahead. In contrast, today’s electricity sector is remarkably the same as it ever was - from business model to operational delivery to core value proposition - in all cases, electricity has seen little change over the same 30 years.
From Commodity to Value
We must move beyond what I call dial-tone commodity electricity, where a consumer’s principal concern is how much they pay, to what I’ve termed personal energy as a service, where we can’t even imagine the value landscape in just five more years. To achieve the necessary radical transformation over the short time frame we have for energy transition, we’ll need to reconceptualize electricity from reliable, low-cost utility power into high-value, innovative energy services that amaze and delight energy consumers of all shapes and sizes.
However strong the argument for change, it becomes easier to dismiss when the change is so expensive, difficult, or disruptive that many find it preferable to deny the consequences, dismiss the imperative, or rationalize the status quo.
I don’t have simple answers to the initial challenges of political resistance to change other than the requirement for a persistent effort to lay out the facts and engage with the same or greater sophistication as that shown by those who are trying to extend the status quo for as long as possible. We must all understand the challenge and respect the level of effort until such time as inertia turns inevitable. We face a long, hard struggle ahead.