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Climate change, renewable energy, and letting conventional wisdom go

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


By Jennie C. Stephens & Elizabeth J. Wilson

To address climate change, the world needs to shift away from fossil fuels and move toward predominantly low-carbon, renewable-based energy systems. Clearly, this requires technological innovation—but technological change is not the hardest part. The necessary technologies already exist. They are improving rapidly as they are deployed at scale.

The difficult parts of the renewable energy transition are shifting away from the existing infrastructure for fossil fuel–based energy systems and overcoming political, institutional, and cultural resistance to change. Such resistance is quite strong—because fossil fuels are deeply embedded not only in the technology of energy systems but also in financial systems, geopolitics, institutions, and culture. Responding to climate change, therefore, requires not just investments in technological innovation but also a commitment to changing institutions, economic systems, and social systems—and a commitment as well to parallel political change. These changes can in turn decrease reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels and enable renewable technologies to flourish.

Unanticipated shifts. Deploying renewable energy at scale means fundamentally changing the ways in which energy is produced, used, and distributed.It means re-evaluating and reframing long-held cultural and institutional assumptions about energy planning. It also requires learning-by-doing as utilities, regulators, renewable energy developers, communities, and customers gain experience in implementing renewable energy systems. With this practical experience, individuals and organizations can let go of some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the energy sector.

The good news is that conventional wisdom is already being challenged. Assumptions are already changing. Social learning is already happening. And all this is occurring as renewable energy expands at a rate faster than anticipated under almost all projections.

Indeed, a striking demonstration of the need to change assumptions and let go of conventional wisdom can be seen in many of the forecasts regarding renewable energy growth that were ventured over the last 15 years or so. Well-informed energy organizations including the International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration, and the Global Energy Assessment Scenario Database grossly underestimated how quickly renewable capacity would grow. The 1999 US Annual Energy Outlook, for example, projected that only 800 megawatts of wind power would be added in the United States between 2000 and 2020 because wind was too expensive compared to other resources. But in fact, due to an interlinked set of policy incentives, technology advancements, decreases in cost, social acceptance, and market shifts, almost 70 gigawatts of wind power have already been added in the United States—nearly two orders of magnitude more than projected, and more than five years quicker. (Surprisingly, the projections that have most closely matched renewable energy’s actual growth rate have come from the environmental advocacy organization Greenpeace.)

A real-life example of social learning and changed assumptions comes from the Upper Midwest of the United States, where massive deployments of large-scale wind power have changed how electricity markets operate. Major shifts in energy market rules and in methods for controlling wind turbines—unanticipated 10 years ago—now allow wind power generators to place bids in day-ahead electricity markets, just as would happen with electricity produced through any other technology. Wind power generators can then “true up” their bids 10 minutes before dispatch, allowing for accurate bids despite the variability of wind resources.

Rooftop solar photovoltaic energy provides another example. Rooftop solar, by allowing people to generate their own electricity, has provided individuals, households, and communities with a fundamentally new mechanism for engaging with energy systems. This amounts to a cultural shift in energy production. New notions of the “prosumer”—an individual who produces his or her own electricity—have changed the roles of (and empowered) individual citizens in energy systems.

In Austin, Texas, rapid development of solar photovoltaic energy has challenged and ultimately altered assumptions, for instance about the optimal orientation of solar panels. It’s true that, over the course of a year, south-oriented solar panels produce the most electricity. But during hours of peak demand, when electricity production is particularly valuable to electric utilities, west-facing panels produce more. This realization has created an alignment between utilities’ incentives and the expansion of rooftop solar.

But though some utilities accept and even embrace distributed generation sources such as photovoltaic energy, others are less accommodating. In fact, political mobilization against solar energy is growing rapidly. Unfortunately, due to renewable energy’s association with the “controversial” subject of climate change and its potential to destabilize fossil fuel dependencies, renewables in general have become divisive and partisan in the United States.

Nonetheless, due to the interplay between technological innovation and political, institutional, and cultural change, the frontiers of the possible are shifting. And while no one can predict exactly how energy systems will evolve as the world attempts to respond to climate change, this much is clear: Scaling up renewable energy will continue to challenge conventional wisdom, will upset long-held assumptions about the energy sector, and will require ongoing social learning.

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