The power evolution
Michael E. Webber’s book, Power Trip, examines humanity’s relationship with energy over time, calling energy “humanity’s most important resource.” Mines Magazine sat down with Webber and Gregory Clough of the Payne Institute for Public Policy for an episode of the institute’s podcast and talked about the energy transition and the future of energy innovation.
Here’s an excerpt of the conversation:
Mines Magazine: Michael, Power Trip details several energy transitions throughout history, so the transition we’re experiencing now isn’t a new phenomenon. Will you expand on this idea that energy is always transitioning and how we must always look
for new ways to meet our energy demands?
Michael Webber: The point I’m trying to make is that the only constant is that energy has changed. There’s nothing that really stays steady—it’s always in a state of flux. There are a couple of examples from history we can point to that look familiar to what we’re going through today and perhaps offer some lessons learned. We’ve been in these transitions, at least in terms of what the dominant fuel is—from wood to coal to oil and perhaps natural gas—and I don’t know what’s next after that. Maybe nuclear or renewables. And that reveals that we can do this and have done this.
MM: What are some of the major concerns you hear most often about the energy transition, and how do we begin to address them?
Webber: We have a lot of technological solutions on hand for a low-carbon future, but we don’t have the infrastructure, or they cause social disruption. We have a lot of challenges, but they’re mostly nontechnical. They’re mostly behavioral, economic, political, cultural, and those things together to create the technical road map for people like me, which is: OK, how do I use technology to solve those nontechnical problems by driving down the cost or increasing the performance of solutions, for example. But there remain all sorts of hurdles, that’s for sure.
Gregory Clough: I think one of the biggest challenges is there’s a huge disconnect between a lot of the technical advancements that are happening in energy right now and the policy decisions. As a lot of us have seen, this grand challenge of it’s either we continue with fossil fuels and provide energy or we’re going to renewables and a Green New Deal—I think there’s a lot of complexity that’s missed in the debate. I think that’s why Mines is a great university to start participating in that, because we have such a breadth of experience and knowledge around some of these technical solutions. But we need to start bringing those into the policy world so policymakers also have a more nuanced understanding of what the energy transition looks like and the complexities it brings.
MM: Michael, in Power Trip, you suggest that we need a combination of new production, increased energy access, smarter solutions and a cultural emphasis on efficiency and conservation. What major innovations do you think need to happen to help solve our energy challenges?
Webber: There’s all sorts of technologies we need to get better at. But the challenge I find most vexing and the most difficult for society is around low-carbon fuels. We mostly know how to decarbonize the power sector. You shut down coal and replace it with gas, and then you’ll eventually shut down gas with wind, solar or nuclear or you’ll add carbon capture and offsets and other things. We just need to do it at a faster rate and more extensively.
MM: Greg, how do we begin to cultivate that emphasis on efficiency and conservation while acknowledging and being respectful of our past and the carbon-intensive industries and resources that have spurred energy growth and opportunity for so long?
Clough: We see a lot of progress happening, but we see a lot of division as it relates to the conversation. We need to cultivate a conversation to address these issues and bring together some of the policymakers and some of the people who provided those traditional energy sources and start having constructive conversations. Again, that’s where Mines can play a leading role—we have this expertise on fossil fuels, but we also have these other experiences, and we need to bring those into the public sphere so we can contribute our knowledge and technical expertise to that conversation.
*This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.