The World is on the Verge of a Massive Energy Transition

A few weeks ago, I got word that my dissertation was accepted. I’m excited (and relieved) to be receiving my degree at the end of this year.

Over the past five years, as I’ve studied toward a PhD in Environmental Policy and World Politics at Claremont Graduate University (CGU), one of my key areas of focus has been energy. I find energy an endlessly fascinating subject because cheap and reliable energy is so critical to contemporary society—yet the destructive effects of energy sector pollution have become ever more clear.

Because of a growing consensus that we have to massively reduce pollution from energy use, and because much of our energy system relies on technologies that are nearly a hundred years old, a wave of innovation is hitting the energy sector. We are, in the words of Vaclav Smil, experiencing a massive “energy transition”— a shift in the sources and technologies associated with the energy services we enjoy, such as light, heat and transportation.

Here are some of the key trends in the electricity sector:

We have clear, incontrovertible evidence that pollution from human activity has already warmed our planet and, unless we take radical, coordinated action, will cause irreparable harm to the humans and the planet. I will save a detailed discussion for a future post, but the most credible skeptic, Richard A. Muller announced in 2012 that he is now a “converted skeptic” and concludes that global warming is real and that “humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Renewable sources of energy are growing by leaps and bounds—and certain kinds, such as new wind farms, can actually be cheaper then the cheapest conventional sources of power. We have a long way to go to cut emissions quickly enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change, but renewables, aided by new technology such as energy storage, are starting to make economic sense even without subsidies. With that said, debates over whether renewables alone can meet climate change mitigation goals persist. I believe, that if we increase spending on clean energy innovation, we can clean things up pretty quickly.

The growth in renewables, which are variable in output, is pushing utilities to rethink and reconsider the classic utility grid. Instead of the current approach, where remote power stations serve major users, so-called “smart grids” are making use of real-time pricing, demand management, energy storage and distributed energy resources (DER) to balance supply and demand. In 2013, I wrote a short white paper that goes into more depth about these topics.

The political and policy questions related to these changes are important to consider. For instance, although people broadly support renewable power plants, like solar and wind farms, they may strenuously object to the placement of a massive wind farm near them. In a democratic nation, local concerns over siting of projects—and over the inevitable impacts of even “clean” power plants—are not a trivial problem and raise a host of thorny equity concerns.

Some of the questions I have worked on, in conjunction with professors Hal Nelson, Heather Campbell, Mark Abdollahian and with other students at CGU:

How can we site locally disruptive projects in a fashion that’s efficient and allows us to meet climate change goals while also protecting local communities?

Should renewables be built only where there is little effective local protest?

How should we set the rules for our energy system in order to ensure that energy prices are low, service is secure and resilient, and innovative new technology can be integrated into our power system without steam-rolling local communities?

I’ve participated in several projects that have attempted to answer these questions. One paper, which I coauthored with Hal Nelson, examines What drives opposition to high-voltage transmission lines? We looked at transmission lines specifically, because power lines are needed to connect remote renewable power stations with urban areas—but the framework we developed can easily be applied to all kinds of locally unwanted land use projects.

In 2013, Hal, Mark and a CGU doctoral student Zining Yang built a sophisticated agent-based model (ABM) using, in part, some of the theoretical research I developed. And then, last year, Hal, myself and Zining used the ABM model to simulate how a community’s political power influences project outcomes. We found that in a more egalitarian world, disruptive projects would be less likely to be built. We published this study in a new book written by Heather Campbell and colleagues, Rethinking Environmental Justice in Sustainable Cities.

Suffice it to say that siting renewable power plants and related infrastructure is just one of the challenges we face as we try to manage a massive energy transition to a lower-carbon world. How to guide the diffusion of energy innovation and create the right incentives and regulations is another critical area of inquiry.

At base, all of these changes beg the fundamental question: How can we create a radically more sustainable society that allows our standard of living to continue to grow? And from the global perspective, How can we promote a more equitable world—a world where people in developing countries have access to the energy services we take for granted—without destroying the planet that we call home?

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