If Electric Utopia (the electric age) is to arrive sooner, Canadians must take responsibility for their political, economic choices
When one is at the beginning of a journey, the destination can seem a very long way off – perhaps mysterious and a bit scary if we haven’t visited before. The journey to the Electric Utopia is like that. My work on the Energy Transition suggests the global economy is only five to 10 years into a 75 to 100 year process of weaning off fossil fuels. If we want to get to the Electric Utopia faster, then we need to have a frank conversation about the risk, cost, and personal responsibility that entails.
Sometime this century developed economies like Canada and the United States will be using electricity instead of fossil fuels to power their cars, heat and cool their homes and businesses, energize their industries, and generally do the things that are now done by coal, oil, and natural gas.
Not a hundred per cent, of course, because northern residents may still need gas for frigid winter nights. And manufacturing will still consume huge quantities of oil and gas to make plastics and other materials that enable modern consumer economies.
But the Electric Utopia, the age of electricity – which I’ll be reporting and writing more about in the near future – will be upon us soon enough.
The process of getting to the Electric Utopia is the Energy Transition, which I’ve written about extensively for the past five years.
Our personal part in the Energy Transition is top of mind today because last night I defended the Alberta oil sands and the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline (1,177 kms of pipe carrying 525,000 b/d of oil sands crude that should start construction later this year) during a Green Party of Canada-sponsored debate at the Vancouver Public Library.
Contrary to industry biases, the Greens were polite, engaged, and searching for answers. Like most of us, they wonder how we can reconcile increasing Canadian oil production with various Canadian governments’ commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But the Greens suffer from their own bias which I find is common in most Canadians: managing the Energy Transition is somebody else’s responsibility.
That somebody else includes politicians (lacking the “political will”), governments (sold out for corporate donations and tax revenue), Big Oil (the quintessential villain, an outlook that conveniently ignores that consumers are happy to pump gasoline into their SUVs), Big Pipeline (see Big Oil), supposedly industry-captured regulators (see Big Oil again) – the list is a long one.
Everybody is responsible for managing the Energy Transition but the voter and the consumer – which is every one of us.
Occasionally I engage in a related “experiment” on my Facebook wall. I post a short comment about the Energy Transition taking many decades to complete, noting that the timeline can be compressed if consumers are willing to accept higher costs and risks. Then I ask how much people are willing to pay from their own family or personal budget to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels. How much risk of breaking a power grid or some other energy system are they willing to accept?
The answers are fascinating.
My social media friends dance around the question, engaging in all sorts of avoidance behaviour, but no one has ever directly answered the question.
Not a single person has ever posted a number.
That little thought experiment nicely illustrates the problem faced by the Greens. By all Canadians, really.
We’re concerned, but not that concerned.
We think somebody should tackle the problem, but we’re too busy or not interested enough to be that somebody.
Or, for a small percentage, many found in Alberta unfortunately, global warming is a hoax and the Paris Climate Accord is a joke, easily dismissed and oft ridiculed.
There are practical consequences to disengaging from the management of the Energy Transition. The most important one concerns time.
Prof. Vaclav Smil, the foremost scholar of energy transitions, says energy systems are so huge and complex that they change very slowly, about three per cent a year at most. That means doubling energy efficiency just once takes about 35 years.
LUX Research analyst Tim Gratjik, a former electro-chemist and EV battery researcher, told me during an interview that modern power grids are the largest man-made synchronized machine ever made and component parts have to change in lock-step. Get too far ahead with one component can break the entire machine.
Gratjik estimates that battery technology changes about three per cent a year.
The upshot is that energy systems change very, very slowly.
Dear Reader, here is my question for you: how much extra are you willing to pay to speed up the Energy Transition? How much risk are you willing to assume?
Canadian politicians, with their fingers on the pulse of citizen opinions about this topic, know the answers to those questions are “nothing” or “very little,” which is why they are moving slowly instead of rapidly to decarbonize existing energy systems and invest in clean energy technologies.
The same holds true for energy companies or auto manufacturers or any company whose product or service is directly or indirectly linked to energy consumption.
Therefore, if you want a more speedy transition to clean energy, to occur before 2100 (my best guess for when the Energy Transition will be mostly complete), then you must send different signals to governments and the market.
If you aren’t prepared to do that, then you can’t claim the moral high ground when opposing the Alberta oil sands and the pipelines that carry Canadian crude oil to market.
The Electric Utopia will arrive eventually because it is driven by technology change, improvements in efficiency, capital investment – the things that always drive economic change.
But if it is to arrive sooner than that, then citizens must take responsibility for their choices, both political and economic.