Citizen Action Monitor

Transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewables won’t be as simple as politicians led to believe

The transition would be messy, destabilizing, risky, costly, disruptive, and time-consuming, says policy expert

No 1993 Posted by fw, June 27, 2017

Francois-Xavier Chaevallerau

“Full decarbonization, it should be remembered, requires that zero-carbon energy sources not only supplant currently dominant energy sources in relative terms – which is what happened in previous ‘energy transitions’ – but literally replace them in absolute terms – something that is without any known precedent…. Even with the best intentions, it is difficult to envisage that such a transition could take place without requiring and/or triggering far-reaching societal, economic, and political changes, which will deeply affect societies’ organizations, economic models, political balance of power, but also their technical capabilities. It is difficult to envisage that it could take place without profoundly ‘disrupting’ our existing political, economic, financial and social systems, and triggering a number of positive and negative feedbacks that we can hardly foresee and probably not model at this stage.”François-Xavier Chevallerau, BiophysEco

However, having identified the technical feasibility challenges of a full-scale transition to renewables, Chevallerau shifts gears:

“This debate is or should be, first a foremost, a political debate, and the outcome of the transition will depend, first and foremost, on how we will manage to design, implement, and sustain new economic, social and political balances of power, within and between countries. This, much more than the accuracy of technical roadmaps that we may be able to design today, will determine whether, how and how successfully we will be able to transition to renewables.”

The debate, he argues, should be “a more systematic and far-reaching integration of interdisciplinarity in such studies, and the elaboration of modular, multi-layered scenarios rather than of detailed technical pathways or roadmaps.”

I suggest that Mr. Chevallerau owes us a much fuller explanation of the political decision making process than he presents in his article, reposted below.

In Canada, the so-called political debate at the federal and provincial levels appears to be well underway, if not fully decided. Consider this March 2017 policy statement by PM Trudeau in a speech to oil industry executives in Huston, TX:

“The proof that we have to combine — and we can combine environment and economy — is that little more than a year into our first term of government, we have made progress both on pipelines and on a national carbon reduction plan which finally puts a price on carbon pollution…. And let me be very clear. We could not have moved forward on pipelines had we not acted on climate.” 

Does this sound like the product of “a more systematic and far-reaching integration of interdisciplinarity… and the elaboration of modular, multi-layered scenarios”?

François-Xavier Chevallerau is the founder-director of the Brussels-based, Biophysical Economics Policy Center, BiophysEco, a new international think tank to support the emergence and promotion of biophysical economics in the public debate and the policy conversation. François-Xavier is a public policy professional with close to 20 years of work experience, most of which in the field of policy and business consulting.

Below is a repost of his article, with my added subheadings. Alternatively, read the piece on the BiophysEco website by clicking on the following linked title.

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100% Renewables – A few remarks about the Jacobson/Clack controversy by François-Xavier Chevallerau, BiophysEco, June 26, 2017

The scientific debate about the feasibility of a full transition to renewable energy is suddenly becoming heated. Yet it may somehow be missing the point.

Researchers Jacobson and Clack argue over whether the US can run on 100% renewable energy

A new paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), one of the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed science journals, has sparked a furious row between prominent scientists over the feasibility for the United States – and the world – to run on 100% renewable energy.

Authored by a group of 21 academic and private energy researchers led by Christopher Clack from the University of Colorado, the paper evaluates and refutes a previous study published in 2015 in the same journal by a group of researchers led by Mark Jacobson from Stanford University, and which claimed that a transition to 100% wind, water, and solar (WWS) power for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) could be achieved in the continental United States between 2050 and 2055, at low cost.

Clack — Can’t rely solely on renewables; must use mix of technologies to get to low-carbon energy future

The new paper argues that the Jacobson team’s ‘low cost solution’ proposal “involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions”, and would actually impede rather than enable “the move to a cost effective decarbonized energy system” if it was adopted and implemented. The most feasible route to a low-carbon energy future, the Clack team says, is one that adopts “a diverse portfolio of technologies” – i.e. including nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – instead of relying solely on renewables.

Jacobson/Clack teams accuse each other of dishonesty and incompetence

Following the publication of the Clack et al. paper, a fierce controversy erupted between the two teams of researchers and their respective supporters in the scientific community. A counter-rebuttal was immediately issued by the Jacobson side, followed by a counter-counter-rebuttal by the Clack side, both refuting the other side’s arguments or motives out of hand and in unusually harsh terms. The two sides accused each other of dishonesty or incompetence, or of serving lobbies or vested interests, and engaged in a Twitter battle as has rarely or maybe even never been seen before between serious scientists.

This spectacle of high-level scientists engaging in ‘tweetstorms’ and aggressive rebuttals of each others’ perspectives is unlikely to be very beneficial to the cause of the energy transition, and could even provide ammunitions to those who oppose it. Among policy makers, even those who are positively predisposed towards renewable energy, it may instill doubts about the soundness of the science underpinning the efforts to promote and accelerate the energy transition.

Dispute generates too much heat and not enough light; misses the real point of energy transition

More importantly, this kind of heated discussion about the technical feasibility and possible pathways to 100% renewable energy might somehow be missing the real point of the energy transition, and could thus be counterproductive. Of course, some scientific evidence of the technical feasibility of a ‘decarbonization’ of the economy is needed, as this decarbonization requires making policy choices that will have profound and lasting economic and social consequences. However, trying to elaborate detailed technical assessments, scenarios and roadmaps for a move to 80%, 90% or 100% renewables is probably somewhat futile at this stage, and may even obscure rather than inform the conversation that societies, in the U.S. and elsewhere, need to have.

In fact, the ‘feasibility’ of a full-scale transition to renewable energy is only partly, and probably not primarily, a technical matter.

Full decarbonization requires zero-carbon energy sources to “literally replace in absolute terms” fossil fuels

Full decarbonization, it should be remembered, requires that zero-carbon energy sources not only supplant currently dominant energy sources in relative terms – which is what happened in previous ‘energy transitions’ – but literally replace them in absolute terms – something that is without any known precedent.

Absolute replacement of an existing energy source with a new one is historically unprecedented

Over the last few centuries, new energy sources have always, when being deployed, supplemented rather than replaced or substituted preexisting ones. When coal supplanted biomass and water power as the world’s dominant energy source in the 19th century, we didn’t stop using biomass and water power – in fact we’re using more of them now than ever before. When petroleum supplanted coal as the world’s dominant energy source in the 20th century, we didn’t cease using coal – in fact we’re using more of it now than ever before.

Development of the world’s total energy consumption split by source from 1800 to 2013. Historically, various energy sources have not replaced but added up to each other to meet a total energy consumption that has been rising sharply since the Industrial Revolution and that keeps rising. Source: Nate Hagens and Rune Likvern, Fractional Flow

Absolute replacement amounts to a full-scale re-engineering of a complex set of societal processes, analogous to the transition from agricultural societies to fossil fuel-based industrial societies

Therefore, the expected partial or total replacement this century of fossil fuels by renewables, in absolute terms, is something that cannot be compared with previous energy transitions. It represents far more than just the technical replacement of a set of energy sources by another set of energy sources, and amounts to a full-scale ‘re-engineering’ of human civilization’s ‘metabolism’, i.e. the set of processes by which human societies – and their various components – ‘exchange’ energy and matter with their biophysical environment and between themselves, and use them in various ways and for various purposes. The only relevant precedents in human history are the transition from hunting and gathering societies to agricultural societies, and then the transition from agricultural societies to fossil fuel-based industrial societies.

We’re talking about a transition involving “far-reaching societal, economic, and political changes”

Even with the best intentions, it is difficult to envisage that such a transition could take place without requiring and/or triggering far-reaching societal, economic, and political changes, which will deeply affect societies’ organizations, economic models, political balance of power, but also their technical capabilities. It is difficult to envisage that it could take place without profoundly ‘disrupting’ our existing political, economic, financial and social systems, and triggering a number of positive and negative feedbacks that we can hardly foresee and probably not model at this stage.

The transition would be messy, destabilizing, risky, costly, disruptive, and time-consuming 

It is difficult to envisage that this process could be anything but messy, destabilizing, risky, with a high potential for brutal or even violent disruptions. And it is difficult to envisage that it could be completed at ‘low cost’ in a matter of just a few decades.

Policy makers are seduced into believing there’s a “clear, quick pathway towards 100% renewables”

There is obviously a natural tendency in Western societies, among policy makers and also in civil society, to wish that the transition to renewables can be done, that it can be done quickly, and that it can be done relatively painlessly, i.e. without affecting too much the essence of the social, political and economic setup we are used to, or the balance(s) of power that are ingrained in it. Hence a favorable disposition towards scientists coming up with seemingly robust models showing that a clear and quick pathway towards 100% renewable energy exists, and proposing a roadmap to get there. This is somehow reassuring, and this is actually what a lot of us want to hear and to believe.

Studies that focus solely on the technical feasibility of transition can be misleading

Yet, scientific studies that focus solely or mostly on the technical feasibility of a full-scale transition to renewables are probably inherently misleading, as they are based on technical and economic assumptions and models that are likely to be made invalid, obsolete or irrelevant by the set of societal, economic, political and technical changes that the transition process itself will set in motion. These kinds of studies may in fact have the effect of obscuring rather than shedding light on the stakes of the transition, by drowning them into complex models and calculations that few outside very limited scientific circles can really comprehend and appraise. This could lead to a backlash if and when it appears that the process does not unfold as these studies said it would.

The transition debate should first be political rather than scientific

Paradoxically, these kinds of studies may also increase the risk of somehow ‘trivializing’ the debate about the energy transition. This debate is or should be, first a foremost, a political debate, and the outcome of the transition will depend, first and foremost, on how we will manage to design, implement, and sustain new economic, social and political balances of power, within and between countries. This, much more than the accuracy of technical roadmaps that we may be able to design today, will determine whether, how and how successfully we will be able to transition to renewables.

The debate “should be” multidisciplinary, an elaboration of modular, multi-layered scenarios — what it “will be” is quite another matter

Therefore, a variety of dimensions should, as much as possible, be taken into consideration in studies that are intent on assessing the feasibility – including the technical feasibility – of a full decarbonization of the economy. This would probably require a more systematic and far-reaching integration of interdisciplinarity in such studies, and the elaboration of modular, multi-layered scenarios rather than of detailed technical pathways or roadmaps.

In the meantime, the debate goes on…

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