Breaking the Bottlenecks to Climate Progress

Princeton University researchers have launched a global survey aimed at spotting and eliminating practical barriers to a net-zero carbon future.

Much work needs to be done, very quickly, if a net-zero carbon economy is to become a reality by the middle of this century. Yet, the fact is that the current rate of investment in clean energy technology and today’s pace of clean infrastructure deployment lags well behind what will be needed to reach the mid-century goal and limit climate change impacts.

On the podcast, two researchers from Princeton University discuss their work to identify key bottlenecks to the acceleration of the energy transition in the areas of finance, workforce mobilization, and related challenges through a recently launched global survey into barriers to achieving net zero. They also take a deep dive into a series of critical shifts that, if they take place, hold the promise of delivering an accelerated rate of decarbonization toward the 2050 goal.

Princeton’s Net-Zero Stakeholder Survey

Princeton University is interested in hearing from a diverse range of stakeholders impacted by or engaged with clean energy projects in all geographic regions of the world. Such stakeholders include those affected by, living near, advocating on, and engaged with projects. The survey asks about experience (broadly defined) with clean energy projects—the good and the bad. And they want to hear from stakeholders with various levels of seniority because all views are important in this effort.

Follow this link to enter the survey and give your opinion. 

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone. Much work needs to be done very quickly if the United States is to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by the middle of this century. Yet the fact is that the current rate of investment in clean energy technology and today’s pace of clean infrastructure deployment lag well behind what will be needed to reach the mid-century net-zero goal and limit climate change impacts.

On today’s podcast, we’ll discuss research that identifies key bottlenecks to the acceleration of the energy transition and which touches on finance, workforce mobilization, and related challenges. And we’ll take a deep dive into a series of critical shifts that, if they take place, hold the promise of delivering an accelerated rate of decarbonization towards the 2050 goal. Today’s guests are two researchers from Princeton University who have been involved in a broad international effort to identify and address real-world barriers to achieving net zero. They’re starting a new initiative that seeks to understand the efforts of those who are directly involved in the energy transition, from industry players to financiers and policy-makers, with the aim of better focusing limited resources to where they can make the most impact on the energy transition and speed it forward.

Elke Weber is a Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs and Professor of Energy and Environment at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Chris Greig is a Senior Research Scientist at the Andlinger Center and a former energy industry executive. Elke and Chris, welcome to the podcast.

Chris Greig: Thanks, Andy. Good to be here.

Elke Weber: I’m pleased to be here, too.

Stone: So the two of you are involved in a global initiative, housed at Princeton, called “Rapid Switch.” The initiative broadly seeks to understand real-world barriers to the energy transition and to align real-world capabilities with climate ambition. Chris, I wonder if you could start out by telling us about the project.

Greig: This all started soon after I joined academia in 2012. As you mentioned, I came from industry. I was very interested in energy and decarbonization, but as I became engaged with the research community and the modeling community around mitigation and this idea of limiting global warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees Celsius, I was struck by the coarseness of the analysis and the lack of attention to feasibility — at least that was my perception.

There seemed to be a lack of appreciation of the scale and complexity of this transition and the speed at which what really is a massive vital system needs to be transformed. So essentially you are looking at retiring tens of thousands of existing facilities, mediating sites, redesigning, permitting, building larger numbers of clean energy and industrial assets in what is a very short time. We’re talking about sort of 30 years notionally.

And all the while we’ve had half the global population still in its very early stages of development, still growing their energy systems rapidly. On the demand side, we needed consumers to change their purchasing behavior, their decisions around energy and efficiency and conservation. And initially I focused on just the very obvious things from my business experience, like the idea that developing countries in Asia might retire their coal power plants at half the economic life, or the idea that the world could be injecting tens of billions of tons per annum of CO2, carbon dioxide, into deep geological formations in just 30 years.

Now this has involved larger amounts of fluid being injected into the subsurface than we had ever extracted per oil and gas. Or that we could site vast landscapes of solar and wind without a really serious community response. So none of this is to say that it’s impossible, but I felt we were just not giving it enough thought and enough analysis as to understanding what it would actually take and under what conditions could it be feasible.

And the same sorts of gaps we found in mineral supply chains of lithium, railroads, copper, and even human capacity. So we quickly realized that there was a massive gap between the energy transition research agenda and what it would actually take to implement those transitions. And in fact, at face value, a lot of this looked arguably implausible.

And so it was, I think, in 2017 we decided to launch Rapid Switch with a real focus on: What are the barriers? What are the bottlenecks? What are the unintended consequences that could slow the energy transition or stop it or reverse it? And then how might we learn to anticipate these and preemptively plan and implement solutions and responses? And so that’s kind of where we’ve gotten to today.

Stone: This is very interesting because you see projections from the IEA, et cetera, about the pace of the transition and the things that need to be done. But if I’m understanding correctly, there is a — I don’t know if “disconnect” is the correct word here — but there is the framework for what needs to be done, and then there’s the reality of what can be done on the ground. Is that essentially what this is getting at?

Greig: Yes, I’d say almost. And I would say it’s a disconnect between what the framework imagines us doing and what we could actually get done on the ground, given today’s practices and norms. I think that’s the secret. I think we need to do things very differently if we are to go at the speed and scale that is being demanded by these models.

Stone: So the underlying fact is that the transition is happening too slowly. I wonder if you could quantify for us, Chris, how much must it be accelerated to reach the mid-century goals of a net-zero economy?

Greig: Yes, Andy, that is a difficult question to answer. In fact, I think if we look at the global scale, we’d say it looks like we’re running at about 20% of what is needed.

Stone: So way off.

Greig: Way off, way off. But it’s very heterogeneous, right? There are some countries that have barely begun their transitions. There are some countries that are doing better than others. But on average, I think a fifth is a reasonable estimate, if you’re talking about a target of net zero by 2050.

Stone: So Elke and Chris, you both come at the problem of the energy transition from different disciplines. Chris, prior to entering academia, as we mentioned earlier, you were an executive, and you were in a number of natural resource and energy companies. Elke, you’re a Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs. I wonder if you could discuss the focus of your individual research and how this guides your engagement in the energy transition? And Elke, let’s start with you.

Weber: As you said, I’m a psychologist, a cognitive psychologist by training. I’m studying how people in organizations make decisions, using the full range of decision processes at their disposal. That includes calculation-based approaches, but also includes acting based on rules. There are operating procedures and rules of conduct. And oftentimes also we’re guided by feelings. At the individual level, we might be afraid of climate change and extreme weather events. We might be proud of contributing to the solutions, rather than just being part of the problem. And so all my life, really, I’ve been an ambassador of psychological approaches of how people actually make decisions through policy bodies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, we smuggled in a better appreciation of the full range of decision processes that go beyond rational choice, which comes out of economics, into a chapter  in the fifth assessment report on risk management.

There’s nothing wrong with rational choice. It’s a notion that we compute custom benefits and do things rationally, but that in many ways — If you assume that all decisions are made rationally, we overestimate the speed of change because all you need to assure new technology to be adopted is to make it cheaper. And we know that doesn’t happen. There are many real-world barriers that relate to sort of decision processes, institutional lock-ins of various sorts, whether it’s existing procedures, institutional habits, infrastructure that prevents rapid turnarounds and policies and processes. And unless we fully account for these additional barriers, but also then use our knowledge of what causes the barriers to design decision environments that allow us to overcome them — unless we do that, we can’t speed things up, even when we make progress on the technological, engineering, and the financial side.

Stone: It’s interesting what you said. You said, “Rational,” right? And I think about economics. In economics, everybody is assumed to or hoped to act rationally. But what you’re saying is that’s not necessarily the case, and it sounds like that probably has a profound influence on the pace of change.

Weber: Absolutely. And I think economics is changing, and there’s behavioral economics now, and so there’s the realization that these social and psychological and political processes play a large role. And it’s not just psychology, but there’s a full range of social sciences that have to have a role at the table.

Stone: And Chris, what about your side?

Greig: Yes, well, I think as you can guess, I’m a fairly unconventional scholar, Andy. I’m an engineer by discipline, for sure. But after a career in business, and particularly when you end up in leadership roles, you pretty much lose any deep engineering expertise, and certainly I wouldn’t pretend to be a competent engineer in the Princeton Department of Engineering. But what I did learn as a company leader is that your life is about solving problems, irrespective of their disciplinary nature.

And so you look for people with the skills to help. I also believe most of the real challenges emerge at the intersection between disciplines. And so trying to solve them in these disciplinary silos is hugely problematic. I think that experience sort of gives me the appetite to look for those interesting questions, and I like looking for them, irrespective of whether I feel qualified to answer. So then I find myself working with colleagues in the social sciences, engineering, policy, economics, and finance. And I think more frequently, too, with practitioners in industry, because I think we learn a lot from them. So I find myself being very attracted to wanting to work with people like Elke because they bring this perspective which I think is crucial to this challenge.

Stone: So let’s talk about the research at hand. You’ve defined four “failure modes” is what they’re called, that in essence create bottlenecks to an acceleration of the energy transition. Chris, could you start out by telling us about these failure modes and the process that led to their identification and their validation?

Greig: So these failure modes, they emerge from our Net-Zero America study that I co-led with Princeton colleagues Eric Larson and Jesse Jenkins. We released that study in December, 2020, and then a finalized version of it in October of 2021. But it got a lot of media attention, and it also attracted a lot of attention from governments and industry. And that study distinguished itself from most other energy transition studies in that it looked at five technologically different net-zero pathways that the US could take, depending on what barriers or bottlenecks proved most serious in different technologies. So we were very anxious not to be pushing a particular technological pathway because we can’t really predict how the future is going to evolve.

The second thing we did was we down-scaled these modeled pathways to show where the tens of thousands of assets might be best sited on the ground as the transition progresses. And these maps really help different stakeholders to get a sense of the complexity, the scale, the speed, and just how challenging the transition was going to be. And with that high level of technological and spatial resolution, we were then able to unpack other issues like employment, pollution, health issues, capital flows, land use, et cetera.

Now the trouble was, out of 350 pages or more, and with so much detail, for many people the transition simply looks overwhelming. And so we decided we needed to better communicate the challenge. And we tried to narrow it down to just four critical issues. I once had a chairman who told me if you’ve ever got more than four critical issues to solve, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. And in the context of failure, this means not achieving net zero by anywhere close to 2050.

So the first one was the failure to allocate risk capital fast enough. This is that capital that is put at risk to conceive, develop, permit, finance, and build the clean industry and industrial assets that have to be built over time. And for the US on the supply side, this is on the order of 10 trillion dollars by 2050.

The second one is the failure to actually be able to build those assets at the speed needed, and so that brings into play the typical time scales to design, plan, permit, and finance. And then all the sequencing of other interdependent infrastructure — supply chains, transmission, et cetera.

Then the third one is the need to establish and maintain the enduring support of communities in a location where all of this disruptive development is going to take place over several decades. And with it comes, you know, associated traffic, landscape changes, itinerant workforce movements, impacts on local businesses and services. And so it’s that community element.

And then finally, it’s the need to transition the workforce, which really has two elements to it. First is, it’s an enormous mobilization challenge. We need to expand the number of energy sector workers by a factor of 1-1/2 to 3 times by 2050, and that’s coming from an economy that was already fully employed. And then the second thing is we need to ensure that there’s a prosperous future for workers in carbon-intensive industries that will inevitably decline. And so we felt like these four clear issues really summed up the challenge.

Stone: So you’ve got this need to deploy the physical assets and the infrastructure. That’s one of the bottlenecks. You’ve got the failure to mobilize adequate capital. You’ve got public opposition to potential projects, and then you’ve got the workforce issue. And these are all very, very sticky issues, obviously — often somewhat political, as well, right?

Greig: Very much so.

Stone: And the full details on these are also in that Net-Zero America report. So to overcome these four failure modes, the next step is that you identify five shifts. And I think it’s interesting that there are four failure modes and five shifts that need to take place in these areas to accelerate the transition. Chris, what are these shifts?

Greig: Yes, so we didn’t invent these alone. What came of the Net-Zero America study was a series of relationships with industry stakeholders who were very excited on the implementation challenge. And so we started to work with people who were involved in the supply of equipment on infrastructure, EPC, you know, engineering, procurement and construction firms, and so on. And as we worked through the infrastructure challenge that existed in Net-Zero America-type scenarios, we quickly concluded with them that the current approaches and practices in their sector were simply not up to the challenge. And so we together worked through a set of scenarios which were essentially trying to frame: What would you have to believe to be able to see the industry actually move at the speed and scale in Net-Zero America?

And so the first one, the first shift was we need to see a redefining of value. And so that meant moving beyond, say, a simple financial value or a net present value in the investment decision process to include the creation of social and environmental values. And then to think about how that value that these energy projects bring is shared with host communities. So the idea is that you’ve got a pathway of most of that value going to an energy company, and very little of it going to the communities. It wasn’t going to work with this kind of speed and scale that you had on landscapes.

Stone: Is that sort of a look at the externalities, bringing the externalities into the value proposition here?

Greig: It’s not about carbon pricing and that sort of thing, but it’s about recognizing the inconvenience and the crucial role that communities play, and therefore they ought to have a right to share in some of the value. And whilst you could get away without that for a few projects, the vast number of projects that have to be delivered over a relatively short time in this net-zero scenario means that kind of norm is probably not going to be sustainable. So that was kind of the basis of that.

The second shift was the need to embrace technological optionality by investing in an inclusive suite of technologies. So including the green and the blue solutions in power and fuels, nuclear and so on, and that was because whenever we looked at a specific technology, we could see an enormous number of constraints or bottlenecks that were likely to slow it. And so the ability to keep a few technologies going seemed to be a way to make the transition more resilient.

And then the third one was to move away from the traditional process of bespoke designs. Every time we do an energy project that is designed from scratch, it is unique. It’s got the owner’s or the engineer’s preferences involved, to a much more increased standardization and modularization in equipment and projects. This is very much the engineers’ ideas. But this would allow us to speed up design processes, speed up permitting processes because you know, permitting authorities would be used to seeing these same designs, and to provide a sense of clarity and certainty up and down supply chains, so that people could rely on the sort of specifications that we are going to be supplying.

Stone: So an example of that, one that seems to be very current, is SMNRs, small modular nuclear reactors. Is that the type of standardization that you’re looking for, or does it go into many other areas beyond that?

Greig: That would be an example, but look at the hydrogen sector or the CCS sector. Right now, every project being designed is kind of bespoke. And that’s going to slow us down. And so the notion of small modular reactors can be carried across through to renewable projects. It can be carried across to clean fuels, sustainable aviation fuel, carbon capture and storage, and I guess what we’re advocating is rather than going to be optimizing and bespoke every new project, let’s actually just test out the designs and keep rolling them out like a production model, which is currently the concept behind this en masse.

Stone: So that lowers the cost, speeds up the process essentially, yes.

Greig: And gives certainty to supply chains, and allows people to hold big inventories. It limits the supply risk. The fourth one was the need for greater collaboration, and you can extend that to communication and sharing. So the idea of sharing information, sharing learnings between projects. And you need to do this across the whole ecosystem, so clients, supplies, financiers can pair those regulators and special interest groups. That is going to build trust, and it’s going to speed up learning and sharing. And it’s going to speed up the cost reductions. But it’s really challenging them, I’m sure, to talk about that.

And then the final one was a much broader embrace in the sector of digital technologies. So this would speed up information transfer, provide greater visibility to more stakeholders, whether they be regulators or communities. And again, that was all part of trust. So I think at the highest level, this is about building a deeper trust, much more transparency, and much more rapid delivery.

Stone: Let me ask you a question on this last point, the digitization. Can you give me an example of how the technology, the speed of communication as you note, is critical to enabling the acceleration of decarbonization?

Greig: So for example, when we go to permit a project, we put together an environmental impact statement, a social impact statement. We submit it to the authorities. It is volumes of paper. We invite communities to provide consultation or feedback on the proposal. We look for who is going to oppose the project.

Stone: And I have to say, you’ve got firsthand experience with this in your past experience as an executive in the energy mining industry, right?

Greig: Absolutely. And so if you could imagine a common data portal where you lodged all of your designs, your proposals, our operating plans, et cetera. And then you couple that with the standardization that we talked about earlier. And suddenly you can see an ability to accelerate permitting because the state of data transfer not being paper but being very much visual and online. And then you’ve also got communities which have a very clear insight into what the project has proposed, and they’ve seen projects like it before because of the stabilization. Then you can see a really potential compression of these processes, both by permitting and community approvals.

And what we’ve seen, though, in the industry, both in the energy sector and the mining sector which I come from earlier in my career is the length of the time that it takes from conceiving to get through the kind of planning, permitting, has lengthened over time. It’s not shortening. And we need it to really compress.

Stone: So it’s interesting, this issue of digitalization. What also came to mind, and you mentioned the different stakeholders is transparency, right? If all that information is online and available, you have increased transparency, and then maybe the collaboration that you also mentioned, particularly when you’re looking at community stakeholders, it would make it easier to work around that.

Greig: Absolutely. You will have seen some of the maps in Net-Zero America, and we’ve just done Net-Zero Australia, too. But when you look at these maps and you see the impacts on landscapes, communities, et cetera, you realize that unless we have much greater transparency, much greater openness and sharing, we’re just not going to have the trust we need to go at the speed we need.

Stone: Elke, let me ask you this: Is there evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that these five shifts, if they happen, will truly lead to an acceleration of the transition to clean energy systems? Have we seen success in these areas in the past?

Weber: Sure, let me maybe look back to one of the four failure modes, which are community support, and give you some examples there. So Chris and I, together with our postdoc colleague, Holly Caggiano, have been looking at what determines community support for renewable energy projects, solar in particular, in Appalachia. And other colleagues around the world have been studying the determinants of community support for these types of projects, from a psychological or sociological or political science perspective.

So there are two things that we know: Measures that improve the perceived fairness and legitimacy of the decision-making processes increase social acceptance and this also relates to the notion of trust and transparency that you guys just talked about. Then the other thing that is really important is the perceived fairness of project outcomes, you know, for social acceptance. And that includes direct payments to the communities, subsidized electricity tariffs, local taxes, but especially also co-ownership. And so I think a concrete example of how these things work is the Danish success in wind power. Denmark is leading the world, I think in large part, from the legal requirement that local communities own 20% of all of the project shares.

And so what that all means, this research, is that we need to develop compensation mechanisms that deliver larger benefits to the local communities. Now we still need to figure out what types of mechanisms different stakeholders prefer. There probably are differences in regions and countries, and probably political ideology and so on. But how do those mechanisms influence community acceptance of different projects will be determined. And our survey of stakeholder perceptions of change on net zero, I think will help us determine the precise designs for these interventions and for this broadening of values and value to communities in different parts of the world.

Stone: So Elke, the Net-Zero Stakeholder Survey, which is the project that you are now embarking on — you and Chris and your colleagues in this. In the spirit of Rapid Switch, it really seeks to understand the on-the-ground reality in terms of the economic, technological and related factors that influence the pace of the energy transition. Tell us about the survey. What insights and data do you hope to gather? And who is going to be replying to this survey?

Weber: The survey asks detailed questions about each of the five shifts that Chris described earlier — broadening the definition of values, enabling the technological options, increasing standardization, the degree of collaboration with different stakeholders, and the extent to which digitization has been occurring. So I think eight or nine different shareholder, stakeholder groups, and that goes from the owners of renewable energy projects, to the people who put it into operation, the legislators, you know, the permitters, the local communities, NGOs, civil society at large — to see how they actually perceive progress on these five dimensions. And it is also a global survey, so we have three different regions of the world, and we will administer it once a year until at least 2030 and so on. So we can measure people’s perceptions of the current state of progress on these dimensions. We actually ask them for projections about where they will see progress first and why.

And the interesting thing is when we compared different stakeholders’ responses in different regions of the world on these five different issues, we can answer a variety of different questions. So we can look, for example, at the agreement or disagreement on specific shifts. Is it the case that owners and developers are describing a broadening in values or an increase in collaboration of those communities? But when you ask NGOs and communities, they don’t see it. That would be an example of greenwashing of sorts, or of bias perceptions.

Or we could look at regional differences in movement on those dimensions. Maybe there’s more standardization of projects in Europe, but more digitization in North America. And then we can use those disparities, those regional disparities, to understand the underlying causes of why we’re making progress on them. And in turn, understanding the underlying causes, we can help speed up changes in other regions of the world, as well.

And then the last thing, you can look at the accuracies of the forecasts about the speed of change for these different groups of stakeholders and see to what extent we can use inside knowledge of how these things are going to happen to speed things up even more.

Stone: Let me ask you this question. How big is our understanding gap in these areas? A lot of this information is pretty public. What might be going on in one country, obviously you gave the example of Denmark being so advanced in terms of wind energy, et cetera. Give us a little bit more insight into the understanding gap that exists today.

Weber: I think there is a huge gap in understanding. First of all, I think one thing the survey will do is it will focus people’s attention on these five different shifts that need to occur. As Chris was describing earlier, coming up with those five shifts was not an easy process. We can’t assume that everybody in the world who will need to contribute to those shifts is even aware of what they are. So I think the survey itself plays a crucial role in informing the community and all the different stakeholders that this is what needs to happen.

The other thing is, it will measure our current progress on those dimensions, or our current state as a benchmark, and then progress from year to year. Seeing progress is very motivating. It’s a little bit like playing a video game. They’re so addictive because in each round, you have the opportunity of doing better on something. And it measures your progress, and it tells you about it. And so our survey will do that, as well. We will inform stakeholders around the world how they’ve done on one dimension, but maybe not so well on the other dimension, and then just getting that feedback. You’re seeing trajectories, steep on some, and not so steep on others. Or steep in some regions of the world, and not so steep in other regions of the world. I think that itself would also be very important information, but also motivating to improve on those.

Stone: You talk about progress, so the next point here is that the survey will be repeated annually, and each year will have a different topical focus. I wonder if you could talk about that change in focus over time?

Weber: There is a set of questions that is common from year to year, and those are the questions on the state of the art on those five shifts that will allow us to measure progress. And so that is a common core. On top of that, we actually also have the opportunity to explore different topical foci from year to year. For example, if we see that there is progress on one shift, but not on another, in the next year we can actually sort of dig down on why there isn’t, let’s say, progress on collaboration in Asia. So that is like one opportunity we have from year to year.

The other one is also just explore different solutions. So in this current year, for example, we are looking at the perceived role of different policy-makers, the national governments as opposed to local governments, and then the business sector. How do these eight or nine different stakeholders perceive the role of these different important actors? What do they perceive the norms on action on renewable energy?

And so looking at what people think ought to be happening, and then comparing that to what is happening will also allow us to maybe focus on perceived norm changes down the road. So basically explore the feasibility and importance of different solutions.

Stone: So that’s important, and that takes us to the next question here. Chris, I want to ask you how will the data that is gathered by the survey — how will it affect the sort of on-the-ground, rubber-hits-the-road change that the Rapid Switch project more broadly is all about?

Greig: I think the data in and of itself doesn’t really do anything. For us to achieve meaningful change, we’re going to have to back this up with a very robust outreach, feedback, education program. And I think we’re going to need to do that through a number of vehicles. There are various meetings like COP, like Climate Week, but then there are also a lot of industry bodies that have webinars and so forth. And I think we’re going to have to give very frank and robust feedback to the sector.

To give you an example, many in the industry would say, “Look, we do stakeholder engagement and community engagement really well.” My experience is that we do enough community engagement to avoid being stopped. And that works for a project here and a project there, but when you look at the cumulative number of projects that need to be facilitated with communities around the world for net zero, that standard approach is no longer going to work. And so we’re going to have to try and help the industry understand what this new level of community engagement would be.

There’s also going to be some of the shifts which are really hard, and we’re going to need the feedback from the survey to tell us. For example, collaboration. Collaboration you can go so far before you start to run afoul of some antitrust laws, for example. So we can use what we learn from this process to understand what needs to change. In a perfect world, we are sharing intellectual property, and we’re sharing project designs because we need to speed up the delivery. So the idea will be that this survey, we learn from that, and then we’ve got to really have a strong outreach program. That needs to be all over the world, so for our research partners in places like India and Australia and Europe and China — we’ll be calling on them to help us communicate this progress.

Stone: So what you said just a moment ago, if I can paraphrase it is, “Good enough is no longer good enough in terms of community engagement, if you really want to build trust, ensure transparency, and get everybody on board.” Is that an accurate description?

Greig: Absolutely. And the emphasis being on speed. If we had until 2100 or 2150 to do this job, I would be a whole lot less concerned. But we’re really talking about an enormously challenging transformation.

Stone: You also mentioned collaboration. That brings the next question to mind, which is: What incentive or motivation will industry have to collaborate, if they’re collaborating and sharing — I don’t know — sharing proprietary information, knowledge, whatever. I mean, what’s in it for them?

Greig: That’s a great question. Even the industry partners I have now, they hesitate at the notion of sharing. One of the things we insist on, certainly with all of the research I do, is that it’s open source and fully open to the public. So that often prompts a somewhat hesitant response from industry partners.

I think one thing we can easily be convinced of is there is so much to be done here in this net-zero transition, there will be more work than any individual company or the collection of companies is capable of undertaking. And so I think the benefits of the energy transition that come will be appreciated by governments and communities and so forth — and the industry as a whole. But they have to get past this challenge of the competitive instinct, right? And that they legally have some challenges about being too sharing.

I think this is probably one of the most challenging ones, the need for sharing and the need for transparency. It’s going to be really challenging for the industry, but I think without it, we will fail to deliver at the speed we need.

Stone: As you’ve just framed it, it sounds like it’s an issue of common interest, right? So anything that accelerates this transition, that accelerates demand for new technologies, for new types of clean infrastructure — those essentially grow the market, and they grow the opportunity. It sounds like I’m understanding here that’s a much greater opportunity than there is potential loss.

Greig: Yes, that’s the way we see it, and certainly when you’re looking at the energy transition in a 30-year horizon, it’s easy to see it that way. Getting companies to look at that long-term, shared benefit-type opportunity versus the quarterly results, the next year. There’s a disconnect there, too.

Stone: That’s always the big challenge, right? The quarterly results versus the long-term picture.

Greig: Exactly.

Stone: Let me ask you both a final question here. I want to know what the next steps are. So the survey, I think, has just gone out this spring — the first of the surveys. Tell me, when will you be receiving feedback? What will you be doing with that? I’m just interested in what your next steps are.

Weber: I can maybe start with that. Our first big challenge is to get a sufficient number of stakeholders to respond to the survey. As you know, it’s a diverse group, but also a very specialized group of stakeholders. So we need labor unions, we need investors, we need regulators, and in all the regions of the world. Getting access to them is not an easy task. So that’s what we’re working on right now, and working with personal contacts, doing podcasts like yours to make the world aware of the existence of the survey, and then begging them, as a public good, to contribute, to tell us their view on these issues, on these shifts, where they are. And to continue doing that year after year in return for getting information on the results. And so summary results, but also integrations of results with other data sources, the kinds of outreach operations that Chris discussed earlier. But that right now is taking all of our attention. It’s to get a representative sample of these very specialized respondents around the world.

Greig: The only thing I would add, I guess, is you know what it’s like when you get a request for a survey in your inbox. You don’t respond to many of them, and in fact, particularly on the industrial side of this, all of these stakeholders are hugely busy right now. There’s a lot changing in the world with the energy transition, so I think getting their attention and being able to illustrate just how important it is to our success in the energy transition, it is a major challenge. As Elke said, it’s really occupying a lot of our effort.

So we really appreciate you inviting us here today to talk about And we hope a lot of your listeners will actually undertake this survey.

Stone: Elke and Chris, thank you very much for talking.

Weber: Thank you.

Greig: Yes, thanks Andy.

Stone: Today’s guests have been Elke Weber and Chris Greig of Princeton University. Check out the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy website for our archive of podcast episodes, as well as research and upcoming in-person and virtual events.


Elke Weber

Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, Princeton University
Elke Weber is a Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, and Professor of Energy and Environment at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Chris Greig

Theodora D. ’78 & William H. Walton III ’74 Senior Research Scientist, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
Chris Greig is a Senior Research Scientist at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and a former energy industry executive.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.