Shrinking Planet: Energy

February 21, 2014

BACKGROUND

Energy fuels modern economies – both literally and figuratively. Securing affordable, reliable, and clean energy has become a hallmark of successful economic development. Despite agreement on what makes energy system sustainable, debate remains about how to deal with the complicated trade offs between cost and environmental impact; between regulation to ensure reliability and allowing individual choice; and among national, state and local decision-making on energy policies, regulations, infrastructure investments, and facility siting. These decisions are difficult ones, and the stakes have only gotten higher in the face of growing demand for energy and the increasingly noticeable impacts of climate change. 

Today’s political and regulatory systems strain to respond to the increased demand for energy services globally, the environmental impacts of energy choices, and the rapidly changing technologies (from fracking to microgrids to nuclear fusion). These challenges spark battles between local communities, state and national governments, environmental advocates and energy developers with no two battles playing out the same. Debates rage on about the ideal mix of energy sources and fuels; siting and integrating new facilities; the level and type of investments needed to build infrastructure resilience; and how the investment risks, costs, and profits are allocated between private investors, taxpayers, and energy consumers. Beyond these issues, we also must grapple with the fact that the risks and rewards of our energy transition will likely have disproportionate impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the US and the world. 

As we attempt to transition our energy plan, the next 20 years will provide an array of challenges. Replacing old and building new infrastructure to accommodate new fuels, and integrate new production technologies will require massive upfront investments. Users and uses for energy will continue to multiply and find new ways to consume or conserve. Policies and regulations will need to keep pace with the onward march of technological developments to continue to facilitate innovation, protect the environment, and watch affordability. Public decision-makers will need to watch closely and respond to impacts on the livelihood, health, and fairness concerns of local communities, particularly the least empowered.

TACKLING THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

To make better-informed decisions that incorporate the views of many, energy stakeholders must step up their efforts in collaborative dialogue and consensus building. Collaboration may require overcoming a long history of adversarial relationships among government, civil society, and industry; between industrial competitors; across levels of government; and among producing and consuming countries. 

Many of these conversations have begun. 

In the US, producers have begun to partner with environmental advocates and communities to reach agreement on best practices on natural gas hydraulic fracturing in response to community protestations. 

In Chile, the conversation centers on how to manage the social and environmental impacts of large energy projects in the form of large-scale hydroelectric and the creation extensive transmission infrastructure. In the face of an energy crisis, Chile’s government is working to strengthen public institutions and the processes to safeguard public interests as well as the environment.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, advocates are calling for recognition of the role women and play in adopting clean energy techniques while energy itself is still a luxury.

Local governments and developers in states like Massachusetts are working to better understand and integrate local health and visual values into siting new wind turbines after encountering public resistance. Electric utilities, state regulators, and the solar industry are starting to participate in productive talks about developing new utility business models and creating better relationships with each other as well as with their consumers. 

While there are promising efforts to incorporate new partnerships and solutions, the road is littered with hurdles ahead that emphasize how much we need new collaborative ideas and approaches to resolve the energy debates. Some questions that arise when looking ahead:

  •   What collaborative processes have fallen short in resolving the clash of disparate interests pushing for economic growth, environmental protection, and local values?
  •   What new dynamics can we anticipate in future challenges?
  •   A rising tide of citizen activism around the world regarding conventional and renewable energy projects suggests we need new approaches and tools. What is the right role for governments in promoting outcomes that constructively address a broad range of interests?
  •   How can we better include women and minorities in the conversation on how to address our energy future and how to successfully manage climate change impacts?

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