This Energy Transition Is Different. Here’s Why

Two workers walk through a solar field
December 5, 2019
This piece was first published in Forbes on November 29, 2019. It is reprinted with their permission.

In late November the United Nations released a bleak analysis of global efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and arrest the pace of global warming.  Greenhouse gas emissions are rising 1.5 percent per year when they should, in fact, be declining at least as quickly.  We are headed on a trajectory toward a catastrophic 3.9 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100.  

The fault is collectively our own as, with rare exception, national efforts to cut global warming emissions will fail to drive the rapid transition to a cleaner energy system that’s needed to keep climate change in check.  As the UN report makes clear, with every passing day the cautious optimism that accompanied the signing of the Paris climate accord four years ago recedes further into the past.

Yet at this juncture it’s important to recall that we live during a unique point in history in which we humans have the power to do harm to the planet on a scale previously unimagined and, at the same time, pull ourselves back from the brink.  The last is a truth that’s easy to forget as the window to keep warming below the 2 degrees Celsius Paris threshold narrows. 

And, in fact, a fair amount of reasoning has gone into the idea that we won’t be able to make the required shift to a low-carbon energy system by the middle of this century because, as history shows, past energy transitions have taken many decades, even centuries, to mature.  Therefore, the thinking goes, today’s transition will too.  

The commonly cited proponent of transition at a glacial pace is Czech-Canadian environmental scientist Vaclav Smil, who has looked at historic energy transitions such as that from wood to coal beginning in the 18th century, and subsequent major shifts like that of coal to oil last century.  Those shifts did take a long time, but making an apples to apples comparison with the transition we face today overlooks a number of key differences that, at the risk of seeming Pollyannaish, bode well for a modern effort to quickly rework our energy infrastructure.

Before getting into the reasons why today’s energy transition is fundamentally different from those in the past, it’s worth calling out the elephant in the room that, more than any other factor, has kept us from addressing the climate problem full force.  Summing up, the elephant is political will, or more precisely the lack of it and myriad forces, ranging from deliberate misinformation campaigns targeting the trustworthiness of climate science, to arguments that energy transformation will lead to economic Armageddon, which have derailed efforts at state, national and global levels to meaningfully address the climate problem.

Past energy transitions were never slowed by ideology and the politics of denial the way this one has been, particularly in the U.S.  Sure, coal barons likely weren’t happy about the fact that maritime and railway markets were shifting from coal to oil fuel during the first half of the 20th century.  But vulnerable industries didn’t manage to convince a big part of the American public that the shift would somehow bring the country to its economic knees, or that the transition signaled defeat in a larger war between conservatives and liberals over the very soul of the nation.  

Yet climate denialism’s days are numbered.  Ours is the first generation for which the question of energy transition is, in fact, existential.  Not existential in terms of our national standing and global power, but in terms of our ability to live on and from planet Earth.  Growing portions of cities from Miami to Houston to Kolkata are becoming uninhabitable in our lifetimes, while floods and drought threaten traditional agricultural breadbaskets.   

New polling shows that the young, in particular, are substantially more concerned about climate change than their elders.   They want more government support for clean energy research and deployment regardless of their political affiliation.  There is good reason to believe that their concern over climate change will forcefully counter and defeat climate denialism.  Political opposition to climate action will become increasingly marginalized as the young assume power.  

Still, from a technical and systems point of view the question remains. Can the energy system possibly be made carbon neutral by the middle of this century?  Smil, the Canadian environmental scientist, has pointed out that it took 50 years for oil to rise from just 5 percent of the global fuel mix in 1915 to 23% of the mix in 1965.  

Yet climate change author Chris Goodall has countered that the transition to oil was in many ways much more complex than the transition to clean energy is now.  First of all, oil served new markets that coal couldn’t, notably land and air transportation.  To meet those markets an entire infrastructure of wells, refineries, pipelines and tankers needed to be built.  Oil for home heating similarly required the development of distribution networks and the widespread purchase of furnaces by homeowners.  

Similarly, half a century passed between the establishment of the first commercial electric power plant, Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan in 1882, and the final push for full electrification of the U.S. under Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act, signed in 1936.  

Today’s transition to zero-carbon electricity will require no large scale buildout of transmission and distribution infrastructure or nurturing of markets.   It will require, in large part, that new clean energy capacity be connected to a grid that already exists.  Wind and sun are universally available, unlike coal and oil in their early days.  Renewables, and solar power in particular, are cost competitive with existing fossil generation in many parts of the U.S. right now, meaning the economic barriers, where they exist, are increasingly marginal.  Where fossil energy is still cost competitive, recent polling shows that Americans support paying a premium for clean energy regardless.  

What’s more, many energy efficiency improvements and carbon reductions won’t be dependent on big energy infrastructure at all.  In a growing number of cases, improvements will stem from advances in information technology and computing power, both of which tend to rapidly decrease in cost.   An example of this is the recent announcement of a high-efficiency concentrating solar power (CSP) system, reliant on powerful computers rather than cutting-edge physical infrastructure, that holds promise of  lowering emissions from industries where carbon reductions are difficult to achieve, such as cement and steel making.   

Downstream, many of the innovations that will green the energy system, from distributed batteries to networked smart appliances, concern consumer-oriented technologies that tend to emerge quickly and, once they catch on, have adoption rates that follow a rapid S-curve growth pattern.   While electric power needed decades to reach most corners of the world, mobile phones have taken over the planet in two decades.   

Of course, there’s big money to be made in all of this.  States along the East Coast have moved aggressively to develop offshore wind projects to green their energy supply.  Yet the states are also competing to have supply chains and construction terminals built within their borders, and to gain the jobs and tax revenues these industries will bring.  Renewable energy employment already far surpasses employment in fossil fuels, and the gap will continue to grow.  Economics clearly favor an energy transition.

All of this serves to show that conditions are in fact ripe for us to reach the goals outlined under the Paris Accord.  Despite arguments to the contrary, at our time of existential crisis when rapid change is required, we have to the tools at hand to get the job of energy transition done.

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