Surprises and change

The first serious efforts to develop new and renewable energy into viable energy options started in the aftermath of the oil crises in the late 1970’s. The then Carter administration launched multi-billion R&D programmes in the USA to start an alternative energy revolution. Likewise, the first deployment programmes of wind energy were initiated in the USA, which brought some 1 GW of Danish wind power to the Californian market with a hope of producing cheap electricity. At the same time, the first global energy scenarios1 were designed at IIASA near Vienna predicting a turn to an oil-free, mainly nuclear-based energy economy, flavored with solar energy.

In retrospect, many of these early efforts in clean energy were disappointments and didn’t meet the quick promise of turning the world energy economy around. Neither have we been able to foresee the many ‘surprises’ and disruptions that followed during the next 40 years, which together have pushed the new and renewable energy technologies to a market breakthrough.

There is not a single mastermind or grand policy plan behind the success of clean energies, but rather a sequence of interlinked incidences with amplifying effects and making use of enabling drivers such as advances in science and the U.N. climate accords. Not to mention the pioneering markets in Germany with strong policy links which provided generous subsidies to new energy technologies, which in turn induced huge learning effects and cost reductions.

One of the biggest surprises during the last decades was the transformation of China towards an innovation-driven economy. China played a crucial role in bringing down the cost of photovoltaics and wind power. During the last ten years, the price of PV has dropped by more than 90% thanks to the efficient, low-cost, and large-scale Chinese innovation system integrated into manufacturing. In addition, the scale of economies played a role. The Chinese scaled up production facilities tenfold from those typical in the USA and Europe. Remarkably, no major breakthrough in the core PV technology preceded this dramatic cost plunge. This ‘surprise’ came from outside the traditional research and technology development realm, which is often thought to deliver the disruptions.

A similar ‘surprise’ was the victory of the Danish wind power industry, which beat the billion-dollar U.S. wind programme in delivering competitive windmills to the market 40 years ago. The Danish success has been attributed to the effective networking amongst market actors, developers, and researchers, and their openness to share experiences whilst competing.

Some ‘surprises’ may have unpredictable consequences. For example, the U.S. shale gas boom took off in a quite short time period 10 years ago and brought very cheap gas into the U.S. market, displacing coal in power production. These changes were so large that they had a global impact; e.g. cheap coal started to filter into Europe. Unfortunately, the Emission Trading System (EU ETS) was incapable of preventing this and coal use has increased in many EU countries, contradicting the EU climate policy. Ironically, the strong price-driven fuel shift from coal to gas in the USA lead to relative CO2 emission reductions of about the same size as those in the European Union with strong climate and support-driven policies.

Above examples should not be misunderstood as a laissez-faire attitude, but as a cautious remark that future development is not linear. Neither is ‘surprise’ the only factor that created a change, but there are other important factors, many with a socio-economic and political dimension.

Actually the success of PV, wind, and shale gas described above is not just about a mere ‘surprise’, but a result of successful commercialization strategies, in which technology development and deployment measures were optimally applied. Policies played a role in the big picture as well, particularly in accelerating development and providing a framework for penetration. The dialogue between science and policy is also of importance. Scientists have valuable knowledge and insight, and could advise policy makers about future opportunities and threats, and urge actions, when necessary. The recent communication2 on the sustainability of forest bioenergy (policies) by leading European scientists serves as an example of such advice.

In a world of ‘surprises’, it is no wonder that the predictions on the future of new energy technologies include major uncertainties. Once a new technology starts to become cost-competitive and takes off, the future predictions tend to be too pessimistic, while when still being far from the breakthrough point, they are often too optimistic.  A prevailing positive development may also be stopped by a sudden unexpected ‘surprise’. This was the case with nuclear power caused by the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima accidents, and the consequent rise of public opposition to nuclear and deterioration of its economics, which turned the hailed nuclear renaissance into a disaster, also reflected by recent scenarios3.

Technology disruptions and ‘surprises’ are vital for technology evolution. Therefore, understanding the nature of disruptions deserves attention. The present clean energy transition will trig a range of new innovations, e.g. in transport, in integration of renewable energy, and through digital economy. Consumers are much stronger involved in the change than previously, which emphasizes social innovations linked to digitalization, circular, and sharing economy, among others.

Perhaps the next ‘surprise’ originates from bottom-up movements and not from a specific technology per se, but from using a range of technologies and expertise together to make a systemic change. What kind of a surprise could Artificial Intelligence generate, not to speak about the distant possibility that one day AI >Human I?

Enabling ‘surprises’, not preventing them, may be important for a CO2-free future, meaning that nourishing a multitude of agents and ideas, which may lead to disruption, would be welcome. The inertia of energy economy is known to be large; it involves huge investments and conservative players. Here, governments may help by unlocking the lock-in to the past energy and avoiding path dependencies. Giving due attention to enablers, drivers, and pushers, which accelerate a change, is worthwhile. Understanding technology limitations is also useful, but we shouldn’t undermine the human ingenuity to overcome such obstacles.

 

  1. Jeanne Anderer, Alan McDonald, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Wolf Hafele (Ed.). Energy in a Finite World, Paths to Sustainable Future, Ballinger Publishing, 1981.
  2. EASAC – the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council Multi-functionality and sustainability in the European Union’s forests. EASAC policy report 32, April 2017.
  3. International Energy Agency (IEA). World Energy Outlook 2017, November 2017.

Peter D. Lund is professor at Aalto University in Finland. He chaired the Advisory Group on Energy of the EU in 2002-2006. He is past chair of the EASAC Energy Panel. He also holds several visiting positions in China.

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