Carbon-Free Energy Systems At Our Fingertips

Transition to large scale carbon-free systems will require strong government intervention, says Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Sussex Energy Group

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The month of March is the eleventh consecutive warmest month on record since recordkeeping began 137 years ago. This is according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The effects are being felt around the world, with unprecedented melting of polar ice caps, killer heat waves in Asia, continued drought in California, and coastal erosion from sea level rise.

It was recently discovered that 95 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are now severely bleached, far worse than previously thought. Another frightening statistic is that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached new heights. What is to be done?

Joining us now from Falmer near Brighton, Sussex, England, is Professor Benjamin Sovacool. He is Director of the Sussex Energy Group at University of Sussex. He’s the author of a recently published paper: “How long will it take? Conceptualizing temporal dynamics of energy transitions.”

Ben, welcome to the Real News Network.

BENJAMIN SOVACOOL: Thank you very much.

PERIES: Ben, given what is happening to our climate, transitioning to new energy systems is critical. How fast can that happen?

SOVACOOL: Well, I mean, that’s a simple question with a complex answer. But I think the short of it is that we already have sufficient experience looking at what we’ve called accelerated transitions, or rapid transitions, when they’ve occurred in a few parts around the world. And in the article we talk about 10 kind of rapid transitions after we summarize a lot of academic literature that has the kind of depressing [inaud.]. So there are studies after studies from many prominent experts that talk about how transitions will take decades, maybe even centuries.

But we also looked, in the second half of the paper, at these rapid transitions. And there, we looked at two different types. And so, one type was the kind of more traditional energy supply transitions. This is things like switching from biomass to oil in Kuwait, or the switch to natural gas in the Netherlands, or the phasing out of coal in Ontario, Canada.

Well, we also looked at five other transitions that were at different scales, using what are called “end use devices” in the home. This is things like air-conditioning in the United States, or flexible-fuel vehicles in Brazil, or more efficient cooking devices in China. And there, we do have lots of examples of where, collectively, these 10 transitions affected almost a billion people on time scales ranging from three to a little more than a decade, three years to a little more than a decade.

And so the short answer is, we already have sufficient blueprints or templates that we can use to kind of design or create the architecture for future transitions, so that they can be much quicker.

PERIES: Ben, these are great strategies in terms of transitioning and imagining what the next systems might look like. But collectively, will it have enough of an impact on the environment to stop climate change.

SOVACOOL: Well, that’s a very good question. And I think the short answer is, probably not in the near term, unfortunately. And the reason for that is both because even the major transitions we talked about, like the single biggest transition in the article is this transition to cooking in China, which affected 85 percent of the world’s improved cooking devices, were installed in China under this program. So China monopolized the market and was able to disseminate these improved devices to 85 or 90 percent of rural homes in about a decade. Right? So it is arguably one of the single most successful energy transitions ever at the household scale.

Yet, it affected national energy consumption by only a [inaud.] percentages because cooking is only one of many energy services and it only deals with heat, it doesn’t really deal with electricity, or transport, or industry, which are the three big kind of sources of energy demand for China.

And so at the global macroscale, I do suspect that the road ahead will be an arduous one that will take probably decades rather than a single decade.

The other problem that I’m sure you know is there’s a lag between mitigated emissions now and the effect on global warming or climate change down the road. I mean, I was reading the other day that a ton of CO2, pieces of it will remain in the atmosphere for 35,000 years, right? I mean, that’s longer than Stonehenge. That’s longer than we’ve practiced Catholicism. And so that incredibly long time lag of emissions means we’re going to be struggling with the impacts of climate change for millennia, for generations and generations.

That said, I do think we have enough advances in technology, in innovation, in policy, that we could design successful transitions that will be much exponentially quicker than previous transitions.

PERIES: When you’re talking about previous transitions, I understand that, for example, coal took between 96 and 160 years to transition, whereas electricity only took 47 to 96 years to transition into. What can we learn from these historical examples to help us speed it up?

SOVACOOL: Yeah, I think the kind of key example from across all 10 cases, actually, is that in only one of them, air-conditioning, was it kind of driven by users or the market. In all of the other examples, all of the strong examples, you have a commonality, and that is strong government intervention, which involves multiple stakeholders and promotes a transition for very clear-cut reasons, whether it’s affordability, or convenience, or energy security.

And so I think there, the two lessons are, you have to [inaud.] transition on their own, and you have to spell the co-benefits of the transition, beyond just energy. Talk about things like health, talk about things like resilience, or jobs, or security. So it’s not just an environmental issue.

PERIES: Now, I understand that the real issue here is the scale at which we can make this transition happen. And so I’m wondering, are there any examples for places like China, India, US, these are large economies that require a lot of transition and multiple levels and layers as you describe. How can they draw on an example that has worked?

SOVACOOL: Many people and analysts have started looking beyond the energy sector for kind of blueprints or examples of rapid transitions in technology or acceptance. And two examples that often are mentioned in our generation are mobile phones and the Internet, which reached billions of customers across cultures in very short periods of time. And I think there, the lesson is [inaud.] and leapfrogging.

These innovations and new designs enable countries now like Nigeria or Ethiopia to use mobile phones in ways they don’t have to sink infrastructure into traditional landlines, telephone poles, etc. And the thinking is that we can develop innovative energy systems that have that same type of mass scale ability. And there’s a lot discussed here about the future of wind turbines and solar panels because they’re very modular and you can deploy them in very rapid product cycles, unlike a nuclear power plant or a hydroelectric dam.

PERIES: All right, Ben, a lot to think about and I hope that you join us again because we want to keep unraveling ways in which we can transition. Thank you so much for joining us today.

SOVACOOL: You’re welcome.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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