Perspectives on the energy transition – Part 2
June 28, 2022

Alex Boyd

Biases and misconceptions often surround the energy transition. In this series of articles, I’ll take a closer look at some of the conclusions reached and underrepresented facts pertaining to the energy transition to address the tension often accompanied by these conversations, making room for more balanced and constructive dialogue.

In Part 1 of this series, “The energy transition and the path to a healthy environment,” I highlighted the health benefits of increasing renewable generation that are often overlooked.

Part 2:  All fuels on deck: The energy transition and the need for fossil fuel support

One of the most polarizing issues associated with the transition to renewable energy resources is the relationship between emerging renewable alternatives and the fossil fuel industry. For more than 150 years, fossil fuels have been at the core of global economies, responding to the evolution of industry and consumer demand. Stakeholders from both sides of the energy landscape must come together to develop strategies and infrastructure to ensure a smooth transition to renewable energy sources for businesses, employees, and consumers that recognizes the critical role that fossil fuels still have to play.

When it comes to the energy transition, the politics of blame are everywhere–but not necessarily productive. The share of renewables in global electricity generation was still just 29% in 2020, and in the US, it was only 21%—with coal at 19%, and natural gas coming in at 40%.

Those advocating for the energy transition need to do more to recognize the role that fossil fuels must still play in making sure that the energy transition doesn’t end in catastrophe. Getting comfortable with the fact that fossil fuels are going to continue to play a vital role during this 30-year transition is essential—we still have a long way to go, and our best strategy will be an “all fuels on deck” approach with cooperation rather than conflict.

Either/or vs. both/and

The current conversation around the energy transition often suggests an either/or approach: We either continue to embrace our fossil fuel energy system—or we make a full shift to renewables. At its core, the either/or approach is flawed. The ‘false dilemma’ of either/or assumes that a particular situation has only two options for resolution (if X is true, then Y must be false). In the case of the energy transition, however, the path will be complicated and is unknown. The only certainty is that all options have a part to play.

As we undergo the energy transition to renewables, the only realistic solution is a both/and solution in which we recognize the vital role the fossil fuels industry has played in ensuring the high standard of living that many of us enjoy and the role they will play in ensuring we continue to enjoy that standard of living. For decades we have enjoyed secure, reliable energy supplies from participants in the oil and gas industry, and we have much to thank them for.

Fossil fuels, for example, powered the Industrial Revolution, creating industries that represented opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. Employment increased as fossil fuel-powered factories opened, offering wages that attracted farm workers seeking opportunities to earn more, and creating demand for managers to run those operations. Even today, fossil fuels are still the backbone of our electricity system, generating 64% of our total global supply.

A person’s extreme position in either direction represents either/or at its worst: It leads others to take the opposite extreme position, even when, in reality, those two people may both have more moderate views. Either/or can cause all of us to become more extreme—creating an environment that’s counterproductive to achieving workable solutions.

We must work together, avoid villainizing each other, and instead actively choose to partner. Making choices like these today will make a huge difference in what it’s like to transition tomorrow.

No overnight solution

Our goal of achieving net-zero by 2050 is nearly 30 years away, and fossil fuels are going to be an important part of the stable energy mix for the next decade and beyond. The move to renewables must be thoughtful and strategic—and it will take time.

All too often, our elected officials opt to promote more rapid local benefits, rather than committing to long-term strategies for the greater good. But there’s just no getting around the fact that in order to make the energy transition work, new infrastructure and grid connections must be built.

Much of our current infrastructure still has significant value remaining. We cannot expect owners to simply write off those assets—solutions that require them to do that are not practical solutions. If owners shut down assets because they find them to no longer be economically viable, that’s a different story.

The renewables industry must be strategic about where infrastructure and jobs are located, as many currently employed by the fossil fuels industry are living in rural areas and may be reluctant or unable to relocate. They have normal and reasonable concerns for their livelihood, and to offset potential job losses in the future, re-training programs must be in place for these employees. This perspective seems even more relevant in this time of significant expertise shortage in every industry.

Can we alleviate one of the legitimate concerns of the energy transition by locating low-carbon energy industry jobs in the places long-term energy workers call home? We have to bear in mind that this is a large group of people that will actively oppose the energy transition if we don’t proactively take steps to bring them along on the journey.

It’s impossible to just ‘switch fossil fuels off’

All of us working in the energy industry must hold ourselves accountable to future generations in the work we do. Much better outcomes will be achieved if we recognize the important roles we all must play and work together to achieve the outcomes that future generations have the right to demand of us.

While we feel that the transition to renewables is an environmental imperative, we also must accept that a shift of this magnitude will take time and we need thoughtful and strategic plans in place to support it and create an industry ecosystem in which it can succeed. At the core of these plans must be a cooperative and collaborative relationship between the renewables sector and fossil fuels stakeholders. We must view our colleagues in the fossil fuel energy supply chain as partners rather than adversaries in order to reduce friction to change and facilitate balanced and rational discussions.

In part 3 of this series, I write about the complexity and simplicity catalyzed by the energy transition and the resulting opportunities as we transform our industry away from fossil fuels toward renewables.