Political discourse regarding the global transition to a low carbon economy often presents competing strategies: system change, wind down fossil fuel production, usher in a Green New Deal, block oil pipeline construction, implement carbon taxes, de-grow the economy. There is an unsettling lack of focus and practicality. However, common to all points of view is the undeniable necessity of energy transition. and while energy systems are indeed complex, and replacing them on the fly is a singular challenge, the principles underlying energy transition itself are fairly straightforward. Here are some key things to remember.
1) Energy transition is how we stop GHG pollution
Carbon dioxide accounts for up to 75 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and is produced almost entirely by the world’s inventory of coal-fired electricity plants, gasoline powered automobiles, cement plants, steel mills, home oil furnaces, gas stoves, and gas powered hand tools.
We end carbon dioxide pollution by replacing these technologies. The replacements, largely powered by electricity, are mature, proven, and rapidly becoming cost competitive.
While energy transition aims to stop carbon dioxide pollution, the cleanup part is equally important. A number of technologies are in the works for “negative emissions” – that is, ways and means to remove accumulated CO2 directly from the air. One of them is at the demonstration stage. Another, the STEP process is in development in a lab at George Washington University, and may be capable of capturing and disposing of carbon dioxide at the volume and speed necessary to prevent catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.
2) All energy transition strategies have a common goal: replace fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices
It’s early in the game, but zero carbon outcomes are being pursued now in four energy-intensive sectors of the global economy: electricity generation, transportation, heavy industries (such as cement and steel manufacturing), and building/home operations. To stop carbon dioxide pollution, each sector is taking steps to replace the specific technologies that produce said pollution. For example, the automotive industry is replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors in the aggregate fleet of about a billion motor vehicles worldwide. One innovative company is offering retrofit electric drive systems for existing vehicles. Grid operators around the world will eventually retire several thousand coal, oil or natural gas-fired steam turbines, along with the facilities that house them. They are to be replaced with wind turbines, solar arrays, geothermal plants, or fourth generation nuclear reactors.
The guiding principle is to replace energy conversion devices (ECDs) that emit carbon dioxide pollution with ECDs that do not. Complex infrastructure, transmission systems, and processes built around all such devices are added, replaced or modified accordingly.
3) Industrial initiative is at least as important as political will
Energy transition policy is formulated in board rooms and factories as much as in the offices of government. Automobile manufacturers build electric propulsion systems. Electric utilities install solar panels and wind turbines designed and built by multinational corporations. The role of bureaucrats and elected officials is to work with these private sector entities and do everything possible to foster industrial initiative, innovation and market diffusion of their zero-carbon energy devices and systems.
4) Energy transition is a phase out / phase in process
Energy transitions have happened before. In the last century, internal combustion engines replaced horses, and diesel-electric locomotives replaced coal-fired steam engines. Such transitions were spontaneous and occurred at their own pace, with little or no social disruption, and were usually confined to one economic sector.
The 21st Century rendition of energy transition is different to the extent that it reaches into all energy-intensive sectors in all industrial economies. At the same time, it is sharply delineated, aiming specifically to replace the deeply rooted, fossil fuel-based devices that power the modern world.
There is a time element involved, a phase-out/phase-in process taking place. This requires careful management of energy systems so they there is energy available to effectively carry out transition. Energy supplies must be maintained for the outgoing system as well as the incoming system. For a while, pipelines will coexist with EV charging stations. It looks bad, but it’s not.
The role of government
Governments that design policy to support private sector energy transition can be confident they are on track. China, the UK and a few other jurisdictions have already set dates for phasing out internal combustion engines in automobiles. The state of Oregon changed public utility regulations to allow the sale of electricity at roadside EV charging stations. If industry doesn’t take the hint, governments may have to go further. Phasing in zero-carbon ECDs at the maximum possible speed may require the kind of direct industrial control that occurred during mobilization at the outset of two world wars. Whatever happens, sustained clear-headed cooperation among government, the people, and the globalized private sector is necessary.