In this lesson, we've taken a brief look at human energy use throughout history. By understanding how people have harnessed energy resources in the past, we can more fully appreciate the nuances of our energy challenges moving forward. We've learned that energy transitions of any kind take time, money, and support in order to be successful - and often take more of each of these things than initially estimated or anticipated. Understanding these patterns of transition has critical importance for effective and realistic energy policy development. Establishing achievable time tables for measured success requires an understanding and appreciation of the pace with which new energy resources can realistically be expected to have any real impact commercially.
One fact that will be critical for us to remember as we continue on in the course is that we're always writing history - so be thinking about what students taking a graduate-level energy policy course will be learning about in 30 years. Or 50. What will be the history we write? Will it be one of the rapid adoption of more sustainable and renewable energy technologies with more distributed infrastructure? Will it be one of the continued reliance on traditional fossil fuels with little widespread adoption of newer sources? These are tricky questions to answer, given the likelihood of currently unpredictable events that will shape our energy outlook and policy. Unforeseen technological advancement, new scientific discovery highlighting major benefits or detriments of any particular energy resource, and the real wild card of societal behaviors and preferences make it difficult to foresee what's coming. Thirty years ago, it would have been nothing short of science fiction to imagine an iPhone, or how my new car (a hybrid) coaches me as I drive to drive it with maximum efficiency - spitting out nearly continuous mpg data and suggestions for improvement. Only fifteen or so years ago the thought that electricity from renewable energy would be as cost-effective as coal or natural gas (aka grid parity) was almost laughable. Now properly-stied onshore wind and utility-scale solar are cheaper on a levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) basis - without subsidies.
This course is designed to approach issues of energy policy in a two-pronged (somewhat conflicting) manner.
- Dream Big. I want you to think outside the box, imagine radical shifts in thinking and governance, and develop idealistic and utopian views of our future. What future do you want to see, and how can we get there?
- Stay Grounded. I also want you to recognize all of the constraints and conflicts tugging at the very core of energy policy - current and future. Our social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances are real and likely here to stay.
It's my hope that if we take a little bit of each of these approaches, we can all learn something about the energy policies governing our world and what exactly we need to do to improve them. Without the ability to dream big, we get stuck in the status quo, and our policies don't change and evolve with the times. But, if we don't stay grounded to some extent, we risk losing the ability to affect real change in the social constructs in which we must operate. Finding this delicate balance will be our goal.
This lesson was also about tradeoffs.
- There is no magic energy source. As we continue to refine existing technologies and develop new ones, we may be improving upon the social and environmental consequences of our energy consumption, but we cannot yet eliminate that from the equation. We value non-renewable energy resources for their abundance and relatively cheap costs ("cheap" ignoring externalities, of course), but are becoming increasingly discontented with their environmental pollution and social impacts, particularly with regards to greenhouse gas emissions. We value the lower emission rates of renewable resources, but find the costs, lack of social acceptance, and new environmental consequences to be barriers to widespread adoption. With this foundation, let's take a look at how policies can help alleviate some of these challenges to renewable resource adoption!
- The path we've chosen might be a bumpy road. In your review of the Amory Lovins article, you learned that even several decades ago, people were questioning our energy choices and the consequences we'd be faced with depending on what we value most in energy in this country. While his concepts of hard and soft energy paths might seem a little extreme on either end of the spectrum, he illustrates the point that we cannot (yet) have it all. Cheap, centralized energy is dirty. Energy efficiency and conservation are hard to incentivize with cheap energy. If nothing else, walk away from that article with the understanding that the decision to hop from one path to another is a complicated and daunting proposition, and one which requires strong policy decisions.
Reminder - Complete all of the Lesson tasks!
You have reached the end of this lesson! Double check the Lesson Requirements in Canvas to make sure you have completed all of the tasks listed there.