What will bring about the energy transition?

At our meet-up on Friday, we watched and debated VPRO’s documentary De Doorbraak van Duurzaam from the Backlight series. The focus of the documentary is the point we have reached with regards to the financial and technological status of renewable energy: we’ve hit the moment when producing energy from renewable sources is cheaper that producing it from fossil fuels. Therefore, the various interviewees argue, we’ve come to a tipping point, a breakthrough moment. While they stop short of crying out Hallelujah, the language used is jubilant: now that technological efficiency has hit the necessary level, the green breakthrough is inevitable and we are heading the way of renewables. The bottom line, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that the calculative logic of the market creates an irresistible force that will bring about the energy transition: it would be too financially too stupid to do otherwise!

Yet, next to this dominant narrative, there are whispers of other dynamics emerging through the cracks of this narrative. For example on El Hierro,  one of the Canary Islands, we hear of the importance of sustainability and of the creation of opportunities for the local community. And it’s precisely the relative importance and consequences of what might drive the energy transition that was at the core of the discussion, after the viewing, moderated by Jaap de Wilde (University of Groningen). To briefly summarize a large number of diverse and lively interactions, the energy transition can be the result of

“push” by market forces (it’s the logical thing to do, financially)

“pull” by political will (the Chinese, able to put forth long-term and top-down plans)

an “imperative” to avoid ecological catastrophe (we have no choice if we want to survive)

or “growth” of community (there is a range of benefits in creating a new local energy system)

Each of these potential motors of the energy transition results in different configurations of what an energy system based on renewables might look like and on who its beneficiaries could be–with very stark contrasts between the different scenarios. In the discussion, even the ecological advantage of using renewable energy was not seen as a given–there are unsustainable ways of deploying solar panels, batteries and smart grids. As such, the inevitability of the economically-driven transition was considered more than debatable.

To delve deeper into the contrasting drivers

For a useful handle on different scenarios driving the energy transition, I recommend looking at After Oil, especially the chapter ‘Energy Impass and Political Actors’.

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Behind the Event

Each year, the summer school holds an event that is open to the public, with the aims of giving something back to the city that hosts the school, of having an opportunity to connect to our summer school alumni, and to create interaction between the specialists-in-training attending the summer school and members of the public. Such bridges between expert knowledge and collective concerns are a crucial weapon against fact-free politics and a useful way of making knowledge relevant.

With regards to the event itself, this evening was a successful collaboration between the Energy Academy, Tegenlicht and its dedicated representatives, and the Groningen Energy Summer School. We are grateful to the many people who contributed to the meet up, with particular kudos to Tris van der Wal for making this meet-up happen.

 

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