Accelerate the energy transition

September 12, 2016

Action changes things.

Multiple systems must change to address climate change. Likely, a sequence of energy transition pathways will be needed to achieve a low carbon future.  However, the problem is time.  We don’t have much.  Intentional and coordinated interventions from outside of a system can help accelerate change.  They begin with the end in mind.

Systems are always changing.  While continuous improvement is commonplace, the transition from one system to another is something else altogether.  It is disruptive, always contested and involves power struggles.

Change can happen quickly. The emergence of Uber must have felt that way to the taxi industry.  They have fought this threat to the livelihood and they have made changes to retain customers.  Autonomous vehicles will be the next wave of disruption to urban transportation systems.  How will Uber drivers react?

Sometimes the keepers of a system make conscious efforts to change in response to pressure from either outside or within.  A good example is how cities have changed their approach to managing water.

In the past, if you needed more water, you just dug a well.  Simple solution.  Problem solved.

Today, conservation and efficiency is often the first response.  In my community, it was pressure from local citizens and organizations that initially encouraged change.  While there was resistance at first, to the credit of those involved, the system transitioned to become more sustainable.  Now as new technologies emerge, the system continues to improve.  And of course it didn’t hurt that there was a strong financial case to be made for water conservation and efficiency. A $10 M investment in water conservation programs over 10 years saved Guelph over $500,000 per year in operating costs and delayed over $40 million in infrastructure.

Meanwhile, our energy system is responding in a very different way to change.  Arguably, more complex than municipal water systems, on the whole, it can and does put up great resistance to sustainable energy solutions. Distributed energy resources – like solar and wind – continue to become more cost-competitive thanks in part to the Feed-in-Tariff program (despite its real and perceived flaws and detractors).  Micro-utility systems are also emerging that offer viable community-scale alternatives to the grid.  These alternative energy systems represent another potential hit to the entrenched utility business model.  Once these and complementary technologies – like storage – fully breakthrough, we may see avalanche change.  Will legislators, regulators and utilities adapt quickly enough or will people lose faith in the system?

We will need to find better ways to accelerate energy transition pathways to have any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement goals by 2050.