What Will It Take to Catalyze the Energy Transition?

View from an arch in Mexico
  • There are vast gaps in current international and national clean energy goals in which key innovative technologies and social justice issues are missing.
  • The global clean energy transition is currently being underfunded by a factor of over 10, causing immense shortfalls that may bring economies and businesses to a halt.
  • Corporations have a huge mountain to climb as they transform their supply chains, revamp their production processes, and simplify their consumer and business products.

Vastly higher clean energy targets are essential to empower the international community to make the leap to a sustainable future, according to Richard Heinberg, coauthor of “Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy.” In this interview, he delves into the practical challenges involved in the global transition to renewable power sources. Decision makers need to face and overcome many obstacles related to manufacturing technologies and social inequalities.

The energy transition needs to be massively energized to succeed, given current time estimates for climate change, the book says. Investment in clean energy – including energy efficiency – needs to be scaled up by a factor of over 10 for the transition to be successful. This would involve spending over $5 trillion per year for 20 years. In contrast, military activities cost nations $1.8 trillion per year globally, not counting the financial effects of conflict.

Market forces cannot drive this transition sufficiently on their own. And the financial estimates Heinberg used lead to a sobering conclusion. Although renewable energy can power a global society, economic and manufacturing goals will need to be downsized. This includes simplifying products, saving energy, and minimizing transportation. It also means that companies should redesign products for durability.

If the transition does not go well, organizations and economies will grind to a halt as economic growth slows, the authors said. Bringing manufacturing corporations and developing nations on board is extremely urgent and requires intensive investment.

Failing to address social inequities upfront during the global energy transition could result in substantial conflicts and hardship.

CEFF: In your book, you mentioned the importance of engaging in the renewable energy transition in a way that supports socioeconomic equity. How can this be done?

Heinberg: That’s a big question. I think it has to happen both within nations and also internationally.

The already-industrialized nations have very high per-capita energy usage and also have investment capital available for making the transition. Poor nations have very low per-capita energy usage and have little investment capital available.

What would make obvious sense would be for the industrialized countries to assist the less-industrialized countries in bypassing the conventional fossil-fuel-investment model and focus directly on building renewable energy.

And that’s already being discussed internationally at the United Nations and is being discussed within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Not much is happening yet because the wealthy countries really don’t want to… as growth within their own economies starts to slow.

Then there’s the question of energy equity within countries. And this really calls into question a whole economic model, especially within countries like the United States where economic inequality is already very high and increasing.

The ideal way to make the transition is [to use] locally owned, distributed renewable energy. But the difficulty there is that some communities have more capital available for the transition than others. We’re going to have to find ways to make that needed investment capital available for low-income communities.

That’s a discussion we need to have happen in this country. And so far, it’s really not happening.

CEFF: How do you think the renewable energy transition will change the behavior of manufacturers that are seeking to remain economically viable? You mentioned in your book that products might be simplified or modified.

Heinberg: The energy transition is going to affect supply chains in different ways. Many of our materials are currently made from fossil fuels – especially, of course, plastics. It’s possible to have battery-powered machines and electric-powered machines such as mining machines.

The other big challenge is transportation. It’s possible to localize supply chains. We talked about aircraft. The other transportation challenge is shipping. There are potential alternative fuels for ships. There are expensive biofuels.

Supply chains for consumer electronics have to be shorter. Right now, consumer electronics have very long supply chains.

CEFF: What are some of the other issues that come up for energy-intensive manufacturing industries?

Heinberg: High-heat processes are the biggest challenge. There are processes for metallurgy, making cement, etc. And these are some of the most basic industrial processes for global [manufacturing] organizations.

It’s possible to produce high levels of heat using renewable electricity sources. But these fuels can be expensive themselves.

There are alternatives for construction materials.

CEFF: You mentioned that production would need to be more localized. What would this involve in practical terms?

Heinberg: It would mean breaking up big statewide utilities. We’re already seeing the failure of Pacific Gas and Electric here in California.

In many ways, that’s a challenge to the energy transition. But in some ways, it could be an opportunity if we see it that way.

Already, in California, we’re seeing community choice aggregation. Cities and counties are banding together to create their own nonprofits that buy electricity wholesale and then sell it to households. The advantage then is that these nonprofits are able to preferentially fund renewable energy over regular coal-based or natural-gas-based electricity.

More community choice aggregation would be very helpful. There are many states where it’s not happening yet. Breaking up big utilities is an important part of it.

Regionally, it’s important to identify what are the most useful and practical sources of renewable power. Arizona and New Mexico are natural for solar. They have capacity, at least in principle, to generate far more solar energy than can be used locally.

Other parts of the country [may be] much more suited to hydropower or to biomass. Identifying the local renewable energy potential is a way to make this fit together and minimize the problems with intermittency.

CEFF: One thing that comes up in your book is the need to retool urban development for greater energy efficiency. What are some of the tools and strategies you would recommend for cities?

Heinberg: Well, for cities, it’s really important to start with zoning and building codes to reduce energy use as much as possible. Buildings and transportation are two of the main sectors. Looking at local systems is also important.

These changing building codes and requirements can accomplish an enormous amount in terms of energy usage. We have to start by reducing the amount of energy we’re using in buildings for heating and cooling.

Changing the requirements for new buildings, encouraging retrofitting of old buildings, and providing low-or-zero-interest loans for retrofitting old buildings is extremely important. So is incentivizing the use of air-source heat pumps as an alternative to resistance electrical heat or especially natural gas heat or oil heat, which is still used in the Northeastern part of the United States.

Air-source heat pumps are highly efficient and they use electricity.

We need to be electrifying all sectors of the economy.

The buildings sector is really important for cities. The other sector is transportation. Making it possible [for people] to get where they need to go by walking and bicycling as much as possible [is crucial]. And where that’s not possible, public transit is an alternative.

Many cities are already grappling with that.

The fact is, we’re still building more highways. And automobile-centered city design is still dominant. We have to design our cities for people rather than for automobiles.

CEFF: You discussed the fact that airplane transportation and other modes of transportation might need to innovate technologically and might phase out to some extent. Can you elaborate on what that might involve?

Heinberg: Yes. Looking at possible roadblocks to transition, there are certain industries that really stood out.

Aviation is certainly one of those. In principle, it’s possible to run airplanes on the fuels that [have been used] in experiments. Theoretically, it’s possible to run planes on hydrogen… or batteries. But battery-powered aircraft are going to be short-haul and relatively small. It’s going to be more expensive.

It’s an industry that has to scale down in order for the transition to happen. Nobody in the aviation industry likes to hear that… but we could not avert that conclusion.

So that means we should be thinking about alternatives to aviation whenever possible. Like high-speed rail and low-speed rail, for that matter. In the United States, we had one of the world’s best rail systems in the 1940s. And today, it’s one of the world’s worst. That was a massive planning decision. And we need to rethink that decision quickly.

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