We live in interesting, ‘tipping-point’ times when it comes to energy.
To the upside, people are talking and thinking about energy like never before.
On the downside, people are talking and thinking about energy like never before.
But the notion of ‘tipping point’ is a useful lens through which to assess the social, economic and political tensions that define much of this energy talk.
Perhaps the most symbolically important tipping point is that at which ‘renewables’ will displace or replace fossil fuels as the world’s primary energy source. This isn’t a precise point in time, of course, but rather an as-yet-undefined period of transition and transfer. Life on the other side of the tipping point, we’re asked to believe, is about imagining an energy utopia in which there are no emissions, no pipeline spills and no water pollution – just a world in which renewables power the planet without impact.
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The tipping-point metaphor also provides many threads for deeper analysis. One such is that all energy systems have downsides – and the downside to fossil fuels fans much of the tension that characterizes energy talk. It’s the ‘clean-and-green’ versus the ‘dirty-and-black’ in an all-out fight – without constructive conversations about how energy systems that are not as disparate as fossil fuel foes would have people believe should work together.
The end of the fossil fuel era – and the rise of renewables – will be neither sudden nor dramatic. The process will stretch over decades, accelerated and slowed by market cycles, technology and policy. It will happen in phases geographically and, as it is with hydrocarbon development, be tied directly to economic development drivers.
But if every energy source has a downside – no matter how benign it appears – what will opposition to the renewables look like on the other side of the tipping point?
The practical absence of a downside discussion related to renewables unfairly skews to the negative what should be constructive discussion around choices and risks. If a system is perceived to be downside-free, it precludes effective discussion around how and when different energy sources should interact as part of a transition.
Hydrocarbon extraction and transportation take it on the chin in the trifecta of air, water and land impacts.
Renewables also have a downside in terms of impact, but those who try to point that out are marginalized, ostracized or forced to speak in such euphemistic ways as to be meaningless. Bluntly, to suggest solar and wind energy have their downsides is to invite a wave of hysterical Twitter shaming.
The result is profound polarization.
But will the grandchildren of the men and women who today oppose fossil fuels rise up against solar, wind and other renewables the same way their grandparents did against oil and gas?
Will they find fault in the massive junkyards of rusting, obsolete wind turbines? Will they rail against the massive physical footprints wind and solar farms require? Will the decimation of airborne animals evoke the same impassioned outrage? Will they resent the government subsidies (paid for through taxes and levies) required to get renewables systems to scale?
All energy sources and distribution systems have side effects that are potentially detrimental. ‘Clean and green’ energy sources seen through a life-cycle lens will present a range of challenges likely to draw the same outrage and opposition the oil and gas sector experiences now.
The pejorative concept of the ‘carbon footprint’ will have its future analogues: solar footprints and wind footprints will almost certainly be framed in the negative.
We should learn from the fossil fuels sector’s general failure to frame energy dialogues constructively – a condemnation that includes government – so that future energy discussions anticipate how polarizing tensions can be managed. That would be far better than our current circumstance of lobbing tired and trite accusations at each other across the tipping point divide.
These are interesting energy times indeed – and only the rear-view mirror will tell us how truly interesting they actually are.
And if we have to wait to look in that mirror, shame on us.
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO of the JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.
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