High Fossil Energy Prices Could Paradoxically Imperil The Transition To Renewable Energy If Voters Get Cold Feet

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In many ways, the high energy prices of 2022 are inadvertently helping renewables, as they are the cheapest form of energy and are not dependent on the usual players (Fracking, OPEC, Russia etc.). Thus coupled with climate change concerns (and the extreme weather of 2022), voters in many countries are eager to solve this problem and renewables are standing at the ready with rather quick deployment ability.

But if those same voters become battered enough, momentum could go the other way.

In the here and now, Europe is facing gas shortages this winter thanks to the cut in Russian natural gas, gasoline prices in 2022 frazzled everyone worldwide and caused not only tank filling prices to surge but has fueled overall inflation as virtually all consumer products are shipped using fossil fuels (over the ocean, rail, and transport trucks).

Through all this, many parties have posited possible solutions from Renewables to “drill baby drill” in the USA (repeat of 2008) to right wing politicians offering easy answers and baldfaced lies. At the moment renewables are benefiting from this clash of the Titans, but in the end voters choose the path they want and in times of trouble and trauma, reactionary views can often win.

Voters are perfectly willing to kill the messenger and fall for easy answers. The only thing holding that back is that the nonsense has not gained traction yet.

But there are many disturbing signs that this could happen:

“Drill, baby drill” posits the easy answer that more oil will solve the problem of high gas prices, but it will not, as refinery shortages caused much of the price surges of 2022. But even center and left leaning politicians are drawn by this easy answer.

France’s Macron made a statement about the end of abundance of energy. Lots of predictable backlash ensued from the Kinsley Gaffe (with more than some truth to it), and his government won the last election with less than a majority. Right wing easy answers can gain more traction and get them into power where they can decimate progress towards renewables.

Australia has a new climate change fighting government, but if they don’t deliver quickly enough then they can lose the next election. They have the right idea — transition to renewables — but voters like instant gratification, and lies and easy answers can provide it (even when they lead to more failure). And don’t forget single issues can overcome long term climate concerns.

In New Zealand support for the incumbent progressive Jacinda Ardern is down due to inflation, ditto for Biden and Trudeau, et al. Incumbents typically pay the the price for worldwide issues such as inflation despite the fact they didn’t cause it, nor do they have a magic giant red “Fix Inflation Now” button on their desks that they refuse to push.

War fatigue may cause western nations to falter on their support for Ukraine. This would speed up returning Russian oil and gas to the market to lower consumer prices. This of course makes transitioning to renewables more difficult.

On the flip side, EV sales are currently up on massively increased demand and moderately increased supply, yet history has shown that when oil prices fall after surges, customers instantly revert to buying gas new guzzling SUVs (locking in those emissions for their expected 15-20 year lifetimes).

Implementing renewables piecemeal can backfire when there is not enough firming for long distance transmission in place. Low wind in the UK, for example, can convince voters renewables are unreliable and hence should be turfed. In fact, the problem was there was not enough storage/ability to move power. Only one piece of the puzzle was in place. And this is weaponized against renewables.

Building a renewable-centric grid to account for their variability would prevent these sorts of problems, but that’s a complex answer and not an easy answer. This Mark Jacobson plan would solve these issues, but requires that all the pieces be implemented, not just some. And here is how to solve the recent UK low wind issue.

There is a recession forecast for next year and it could be long and painful. In countries with center or left leaders, voters who choose to kill the messenger (the incumbent) may choose to elect conservatives who promise easy answers and more comforting fossil fuels. Inflation is on everyone’s mind and a quick fix is very appealing to voters. The lack of a red wave (2022 USA midterms) cannot be taken for granted nor is it assured to be replicated elsewhere. Also in early 2020, renewables were touted as a possible method to achieve post-Covid economic recoveries, but this was quickly forgotten.

The ultimate result of all this is a possible slowdown in renewable deployment, or worst case even turning voters against progress and renewables.

In summary, this all comes down to voters killing the messenger (incumbents) and falling for single issues or easy answers.
In times of trouble and panic, easy answers are incredibly alluring.

None of this is a foregone conclusion, and voters turning on renewables is not ordained or inevitable. However, we can take steps to keep things on track:

Implement policy that works to rapidly accelerate price parity for solar, wind, EVs, and grid level energy storage. The American Inflation Reduction Act does help on this front, but more is needed and every other country on Earth needs to also take steps on this front. This also includes (responsibly) fast tracking mining permits for renewable minerals to bring down battery costs.

Work from a comprehensive renewables implementation plan to ensure renewables have sufficient firming in place so that low wind or low sun days don’t catch the grid off guard. This can be accomplished with long distance power transmission (interconnections), grid level energy storage, home battery storage, smart demand management, and many more tools we have at our disposal. Working together they can eliminate variability concerns, but all the pieces need to be in operation for it to work properly. And the public needs to be educated on why all the pieces are needed to make this work, not just installing the wind turbines and solar panels. And they should be updated regularly on where the transition currently stands and how much more is on track to be accomplished each year.

Next, enact stronger laws for scaling down carbon pollution and institute a rebated carbon tax. Canada has implemented a carbon tax — most of its citizens get a carbon tax rebate every 3 months that is set at the average use level. If you use the average amount of carbon, you are not out any money (thus this tax is not regressive on low income earners). If you use less carbon than average, then you’re making money. If you use more carbon than average, then you are paying for your pollution.

While conservatives fight this tooth and nail (and conveniently forget the rebate exists) its a reasonably well designed system.

The EU has a cap and trade system that needs to be reinforced rather than then watered down, which might happen if things get worse and voters see more fossil fuels as their holy grail.

And finally, we must educate voters on how renewable energy works and how we can quickly transition to it with the right policies, the right implementation, scaling their production and putting strong laws on the books to rapidly accomplish all of this. And that the political right are attempting to weaponize inflation to prevent climate change from being defeated.

Teach voters about the coming attacks so that they can choose to oppose them before they are fed lies.

Thanks to commenter Ron, whose comment on my recent article inspired this article.

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Barry A.F.

I've had an interest in renewable energy and EVs since the days of deep cycle lead acid conversions and repurposed drive motors (and $10/watt solar panels). How things have changed. Also I have an interest in systems thinking (or first principles as some call it), digging into how things work from the ground up. Did you know that 97% of all Wikipedia articles link to Philosophy? A very small percentage link to Pragmatism. And in order to put my money where my mouth is I own one (3x split) Tesla share.   A link to all my articles

Barry A.F. has 68 posts and counting. See all posts by Barry A.F.