“Socio-energy systems design: A policy framework for energy transitions”

[This is first in a set of posts coordinated with Dr. Clark Miller’s (virtual) visit to OU’s Climate Change in History Dream Course. The video of Dr. Miller’s talk will appear here Friday, followed next Wednesday by Dr. Grady’s response.]

Clark A. Miller, Jennifer Richter, & Jason O’Leary. 2015. Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 6, pp. 29-40.
In the context of large-scale energy transitions, current approaches to energy policy have become too narrowly constrained around problems of electrons, fuel, and carbon, the technologies that provide them, and the cost of those technologies. Energy systems are deeply enmeshed in broad patterns of social, economic, and political life and organization, and significant changes to energy systems increasingly are accompanied by social, economic, and political shifts. Energy policy is therefore, in practice, a problem of socio-energy system design. In this article, we offer a definition of socio-energy systems, reconceptualize key questions in energy policy in terms of socio-energy systems change, analyze three case studies of energy policy development as problems of socio-energy systems design, and develop recommendations for rethinking energy policy and governance in the context of socio-energy systems transitions.

US Electrical Generation 1950-2016.png

This is actually a two-part post. This first part does not a priori assume that solar power will be significantly more dominant in 20-30 years then it is today, but discusses the more general ideas presented by Miller et al. (2015). The second post, next week, will cover Miller’s assumption (stated here) that solar power will be the dominant non-fossil fuel source of electric power and will replace a significant amount of electrical power generation from fossil fuels (currently in the US fossil fuels generate about 60%, nuclear 20%, hydro 7%, wind 7%, solar 2% and biomass 2%). 

I chose a format where I directly quote from the paper to illustrate main themes and then discuss.

Energy systems are deeply enmeshed in broad patterns of social, economic, and political life and organization, and significant changes to energy systems increasingly are accompanied by social, economic, and political shifts. (p. 1 of open ms)

As an example of this, some countries have made significantly different choices in terms of the way to generate electricity. To eliminate economic factors I will only discuss First World countries. One obvious reason for differences is that certain countries possess certain natural resources, i.e. the Middle East and America have abundant natural gas, Germany and Australia have large amounts of coal, the Nordic countries have lots of rivers etc. However, significant variability exists for nations that have neither fossil fuels or many rivers, i.e. the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear power. France has a high proportion of their electricity generation from nuclear power (~70%) while Israel primarily uses fossil fuels imported from Arab countries with no nuclear power generation.   Pre-Fukushima Japan had only ~30% of their power from nuclear with the rest from imported fossil fuels. All three countries are stable parliamentary democracies, why exactly do these differences exist? One could make a similar argument about wind and solar, some have adopted those technology more quickly while others have not.  

Only by reconceiving energy policy in more social terms, we believe, can the world hope to lessen conflict over energy transformations in the coming quarter century. (p. 4)

What do the authors mean by “social terms”. The paper suggests a micro level. On a micro level NIMBY (not in my backyard) is a common theme running through this analysis. The authors make an example of solar power from a purchase model to a lease model for rooftop energy systems. Is there a way to make transitions more achievable through micro arrangements? Another example the authors use is nuclear fuel disposal. Currently, nuclear fuel is stored on-site at the plants in casks, which are not permanent nor were ever intended to be permanent. Opposition to Yucca Mountain, which was supposed to be the long-term storage site was primarily local-concern driven. Those 65 plants where the nuclear waste is currently stored; what about their concerns?

One of my personal favorites is to eliminate private car ownership and instead have a fleet of automated driverless electric cars that are powered by non-fossil-fuel sources of electricity. About 100 people/day die in car crashes in the US. This system is technologically achievable in 10 years. This system would all but eliminate deaths due to car crashes, although travel in heavy rain or snow would not be possible. Economically this model makes sense in that we would spend less on cars as individuals (no car payments and no insurance payments).  Does anyone reading this blog think that this vision is achievable in our lifetimes? Perhaps this is an Engineer talking, but if we can lessen conflict so that decisions are made on more informed terms then that would be a substantial achievement.

As the United States and the world contemplate a deep and widespread energy transition over the next few decades—whether toward new forms of hydrocarbons, a nuclear resurgence, renewables, or something else entirely—this transformation will have enormous human consequences. At least for the purposes of this transition, energy policy must expand to acknowledge, recognize, assess, and incorporate the fact that its objectives and outcomes are not just to change either the fuels or technologies of energy but to transform socio-energy systems. (p. 40)

The first sentence is true, in a macro-level sense for sure (climate change, nuclear waste, mining of minerals, bird populations, fish migration etc.) which will transfer to the micro-level sense.

The second sentence is more controversial. The authors make the point in the paper that we evaluate power based on three things: continuously meet all demand, minimize cost, and minimize byproducts. The authors say these three criteria are oversimplified, but I think not. Further, since most believe that any system that does not satisfy the first is unacceptable, the argument comes to what relative weight people assign to the last two considerations. I do not believe people will significantly change power usage if the economics are the same based on the source of the power. So in this sense, people don’t care and energy transitions have not transformed socio-energy systems.  Approximately 25% of electricity generation system in the US has changed fuel source in the last 10 years and the reader can make their own decision about whether that has transformed the socio-energy system.

People do care in terms of the tradeoffs between environmental effect A vs. environmental effect B (so people’s usage doesn’t change, but people’s opinions do affect choice of what is being built/phased out etc). The 25% example was mostly changing from coal to natural gas; because both economics and tradeoffs favored this transition, very few were concerned. The Fukushima accident killed very few people by acute radiation exposure, and it is very hard to pinpoint the number of deaths due to cancer from lower level or longer term exposure, but various estimates suggest less than 1000. Yet this accident eliminated nuclear power in Japan which was almost exclusively replaced with fossil fuels. One renewable technology is growing substantially each year even though this technology currently kills 148,000-328,000 birds each year, while another renewable technology is stagnant primarily because new construction may or may not have significant effects on fish populations. The policy framework should focus on real economic cost and real tradeoffs, figuring out just what those are and then communicating them as best as possible so informed choices can be made.

Brian Grady (ORCID 0000-0002-4975-8029) is Douglas and Hilda Bourne Chair in Chemical Engineering and Director of the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering at the University of Oklahoma.

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