Sunday, November 1, 2015

The politics of energy transitions

Energy transitions are about who benefits and who is put at risk. They are about the power of regulatory institutions, the structure of markets, and the distribution of wealth. And they are about how people of all sorts work and live.’ So said the introductory paper in a special issue of the journal Science as Culture on energy transitions. It went on:  ‘It is not simply a question of whether to build infrastructure for renewable energy systems but rather how to approach such a task and what forms of intertwined social, economic, political, and technological arrangements get built and/or evolve to produce new forms of energy production and consumption’.

It argued that ‘Traditionally, energy transitions have been understood in terms of fuel sources, such as the transition from wood to coal, coal to oil, or oil to renewables. Viewed from a socio-technological systems perspective, this framing of energy transitions looks naıve at best. On one hand, transitions in fuels are inevitably accompanied by widespread social, economic, and political transformations that must also be factored into assessments of energy change. Even more importantly, neither fuels nor their associated technologies of extraction, generation, and use determine the social and economic forms that energy systems take over time. Rather, these technologies are interpretively flexible, like all technologies, and can be shaped into a range of diverse energy systems. Thus, the key choices involved in energy transitions are not so much between different fuels but between different forms of social, economic, and political arrangements built in combination with new energy technologies. In other words, the challenge is not simply what fuel to use but how to organize a new energy system around that fuel’. Clark A. Miller, Alastair Iles & Christopher F. Jones, ‘The Social Dimensions of Energy Transitions’ in Science As Culture Forum On Energy Transitions, Science As Culture ,Vol. 22, Issue 2, 2013:

Taking that on board, in a new Palgrave Pivot e-book ‘Green Energy Futures: A Big Change for the Good’, I have tried to map out the technical options ahead and their likely social and economic implications. I start with the assumption that the use of fossil fuels has to be halted, and probably long before this is forced on us by the inevitable ultimate depletion of these resources. That will involve a major change- over 80% of the energy used globally comes from these sources, coal, oil and gas, used for heating, electricity production, and to power vehicles.  The book asks - can their use be phased out? With the divestment movement catching on and fossil companies worried out the economic viability of their fossil investment as governments tighten up emission regulations, change is underway.  But what will replace fossil fuel? 

In the book I look at whether nuclear power can play a role, or whether there is there a way forward using renewable energy sources and energy efficiency initiatives to cut emissions from fossil fuels while avoiding nuclear power. Unsurprisingly I conclude that nuclear is unlikely to have much of a role in future, and argue that the pro and anti nuclear debate has absorbed too much time and energy over the years, to the detriment of what it sees as a more relevant, interesting and increasingly urgent debate over what sort of renewable/efficiency mix we need. That is my main focus in the rest of the book, which explores the implications of shifting to greener, cleaner energy sources.  It argues there is no one green future. There is a range of possible options of various types and scales: we need to choose amongst them. And drawing heavily on material from Renew, the newsletter I edit, it offers an overview of the technical, social, economic and  environmental issues to help, exploring what the technological mix might be, and what choices might be available.  The Science As Culture paper called for ‘robust empirical and theoretical inquiries into what current and future energy changes will mean for diverse groups of people across the planet’. I may not have achieved that, since my focus is more on the technological choices than on the harder to define social choices, but I hope I have made a start.

It is certainly becoming urgent to make some decisions. And so it is good to see that the big fossil companies are being put under pressure to change. The bottom line will always no doubt be economics, but moral pressure also has a place. In that context, with the fossil ‘divestment’ movement making waves around the world, involving pension funds Universities, charities and churches, it is interesting that Pope Francis has spoken out on climate change, and that a conference of Islamic religious leaders has done so too.

The Pope’s views actually paralleled some of the analysis in the Science As Culture paper. In his papal encyclical he said  ‘We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build’. The Islamic Climate Declaration was more specific and called on the people of all nations and their leaders to commit to ‘100 % renewable energy and/or a zero emissions strategy as early as possible, to mitigate the environmental impact of their activities’. That of course might be taken to include nuclear, but it goes on to call for investment ‘in decentralized renewable energy, which is the best way to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development’.

Well given that, maybe Iran, and other Middle Eastern states, might even take note of the proposal by Amory Lovins for a post-nuclear switch to renewables: We can but hope! Meanwhile, globally, there is plenty to do in terms of selecting the right sustainable energy mix for the future, and ensuring that it gets adopted widely.

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