Human-Centered Energy Systems

What are reasonable aspirations for a human-centered energy system?  In Beyond Quick Fixes (Oxford, 2024), I propose a ten-year, multi-stage plan to transform the energy system in the US.  The plan includes five elements:

  • Starting Point (Status Quo): Unacceptable emission levels
  • Baseline Initial Success: Emission limitations
  • Leveraging Baseline: Renewables, including nuclear
  • Innovative Leaps: Storage & transmission innovations
  • Ultimate Success: Green energy workforce

Unacceptable emission levels of carbon and methane have led to global warming, causing storms, floods, fires, and sea level rise.  There seems to be general, but not universal, agreement that rebuilding after each disaster is an expensive and inadequate strategy.

The first step is emission limitations.  We have made notable progress in this area, despite often fierce resistance from major emitting enterprises.  We need to accelerate the movement to renewable energy sources – water, wind, and solar – as well as next-generation nuclear.  The costs of renewable energy have dramatically decreased in recent years.

We need to invest in creating and deploying energy storage and transmission innovations.  The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.  We need to store the energy created by these sources to be able to access it when needed.  Investments in transmission infrastructure is needed as the sources of renewable energy are not always near where the energy is needed.  While we can build a traditional electric power generation facility anywhere, wind and solar do not allow this discretion.

The existing fossil energy workforce needs to be transformed into a green energy workforce.  The opportunity is there – the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that two of fastest growing jobs are solar panel installer and wind turbine maintainer.  We need to invest in the education of this workforce, perhaps using high quality online courses that have emerged.  This approach could enable workers to more quickly transition to the hands-on training that is inherently needed in this domain.

Employment is 7.8 million jobs in the energy sector, growing by 4% annually.  40% of jobs are in “net-zero emissions” occupations.  There are 2.6 million jobs in the motor vehicle and components portion of this sector, increasing 9.8% annually.  The largest percent increases are in electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids. There are 908,000 jobs in energy supply portion of this sector, down 3.1% annually; the largest decreases are 6.4% in petroleum and 11.8% in coal.

Thus, the transition to green employment has started.  A great example is in Scotland where wind jobs associated with an ocean-based wind farm of 84 turbines provides more than 10% of Britain’s electricity, and more than 50% on gusty days.  This has created over 31,000 jobs.  As more of the electricity is generated by renewables, the environmental benefits of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are much greater.  However, recharging BEVs with electricity from coal-fired plants completely undermines such benefits.

There are, nevertheless, hurdles affecting the energy transition.  There are significant grid capacity issues causing “huge backlogs of renewable energy projects have built up around the world as developers are refused permission to pump their power into the grid.  In Germany, for instance, delays in grid development have prevented wind farms in the north from powering the industrial south.”  An overarching issue is who pays for grid upgrades, i.e., utilities vs. public vs. providers of renewable energy.

A human-centered energy system requires understanding the values, concerns, and perceptions of all the stakeholders in the energy system – which includes everybody.  Policies and practices need to be guided by this understanding.  We are making good progress, but complete success, as noted above will likely require a decade.  There is no viable quick fix.

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