​Renewables aren’t perfect, and if we don’t talk about that we’re setting up the future of energy for failure

We live in the most interesting of energy times.

One way to think of it is as a tipping point.

To the upside, people are talking and thinking about energy like never before.

On the downside, people are talking and thinking about energy like never before.

These statements aren't as contradictory as they may seem – and the notion of "tipping point" is a useful lens through which to assess the social, economic and political tensions that define much of this energy talk.

Tensions being the operative word.

Like all oppositional debates, the voices speaking to each other, when they do, are on opposing sides of the “tip.” On each side, the voices span a broad spectrum, from the reasoned and rational to the shrill and dogmatic.

Perhaps the most symbolically important “tipping point” is that at which "renewables" will displace/replace fossil fuels as the world's primary energy source. This isn't a precise point in time, of course, but rather an as-yet-undefined period of transition and transfer. Life on the other side of the tipping point, we’re asked to believe, is about imagining an energy utopia, in which there are no emissions, no pipeline spills and no water pollution – just a world in which renewables power the planet without impact.

Thus, the tipping-point metaphor is also useful in that it provides many dialogue threads on which to tug for deeper analysis. One such thread is that all energy systems have downsides – and it is that downside to fossil fuels that currently fans much of the tension that characterizes current energy talk. In other words, it’s the “clean-and-green” versus the “dirty-and-black” in an all-out fight to the finish – without constructive conversations about how energy systems that are not as disparate as fossil fuel foes would have people believe should work together.

History will tell us that end of the fossil fuel era – and the concomitant rise of renewables – will be neither sudden nor dramatic. Rather, it will be a more incrementally iterative process that will stretch out over decades, accelerated and slowed in equal measure by market cycles, technology advances and policy dialogues. It will also happen in different phases geographically, and as it is with hydrocarbon development, tied directly to underlying economic development drivers.

This view permits surfacing an important dynamic that is currently too muted: if every energy source has a downside – no matter how notionally benign its putative passiveness – what will opposition to the “renewables” look and sound like on the other side of the tipping point?

The practical absence of downside discussion to renewables unfairly skews to the negative what should be constructive discussion around the choices and risks associated with different energy choices. If a system is perceived to be downside-free, it precludes effective discussion around the “hows” and “whens” different energy sources should engage and interact with each other as part of an overall systems transition framework.

Right now, hydrocarbon extraction and subsequent transportation takes it on the chin in the trifecta of air, water and land impacts. Renewables too have a downside in terms of impact, but voices which attempt to point that out are either marginalized, indeed ostracized, or forced to speak in such euphemistic ways as to be meaningless. Put more bluntly, and in social media terms, to suggest solar and wind as energy sources have their downsides is to invite a wave of hysterical Twitter shaming.

The result is profound polarization.

So here’s a framing question: will the grandchildren of the men and women who today oppose fossil fuels rise up against solar, wind and other renewables the same way their grandparents did against oil and gas?

Will they find fault in the massive junkyards of rusting and obsolete wind turbines in 2075? Will they rail against the massive physical footprints wind and solar farms require to be efficient at scale in 2050? Will the decimation of airborne animals – which will increase exponentially with the aforementioned wind farm footprint – evoke the same impassioned outrage in 2035? Will they resent in 2025 the government subsidies (to be paid for through taxes and “levies”) required to capitalize renewables systems on their way to scale?

The reality is that all energy sources and their related development distribution systems have side effects that are in some way potentially detrimental. While “renewable” in a way that fossil fuels are arguably not, “clean and green” energy sources seen through a life-cycle lens will present a range of challenges against which there is likely to be outrage and opposition in many ways similar to what the oil and gas sector experiences now.

The pejorative concept of the “carbon footprint” will have its future analogues: solar footprints and wind footprints will almost certainly be framed in the negative.

We should learn from the fossil fuels sector’s general failure to frame energy dialogues constructively – a condemnation that includes government – so that future energy discussions anticipate in advance how polarizing tensions can be pro-actively managed – rather than our current circumstance of voices lobbing tired and trite accusations at each other across the tipping point divide.

These are interesting energy times indeed – and only the rear-view mirror will tell us how truly interesting they actually are.

And if we have to wait to look in that mirror, shame on us.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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