March 7, 2013
Featured by Thomson Reuters.
There are compelling reasons to improve our energy system – to increase accessibility, affordability and reliability and to reduce environmental impacts. Yet the energy system has historically evolved much more slowly than other technology-dependent sectors. It took eight decades for oil to overtake coal as the US primary energy source, while mp3s replaced CDs and tapes in only three years. If we aspire to improve the energy system, it is important understand both the reasons why our energy system changes so slowly and the motivations of those with the resources to affect true transformation.
Energy change is sluggish as a result of scale, ubiquity, longevity, interdependence and incumbency. Energy infrastructure is expensive and long-lived; a single power plant is a multi-billion dollar investment with a lifetime on the order of decades. Further, the energy sector has a multitude of stakeholders with varied interests (governments, citizens, private industry and NGOs), and its many parts must all function as an integrated system. Last, as is true with any commodity, the consumer cannot distinguish among products from different sources, and so suppliers see incumbency as a considerable advantage.
These factors also underscore the challenges for governments to affect material change in the energy sector. Although many cite the Manhattan Project and “Moon Shot” as potential models for government catalysis of energy transformation, those projects were of singular focus, were funded entirely by the government and had little impact on the daily lives of citizens. For energy transformation, we need not only scientific innovation but also large-scale deployment.