Energy can range from the excitement we feel zipping down a slide to the steam billowing from a coal fired power plant. We all have a different intimate experience with energy. For the mechanical engineer, how a car engine works is just as important as a sociologist studying how people are affected by the influx of rig operators in a remote community. The study of energy is not an isolated experience of mechanical levers or crime statistics. Rather, to understand how our energy system works, how it evolves and how we solve pressing environmental problems – from a variety of angles – we need both a broad overview of the energy sector, but also draw on specific academic and professional disciplines to improve current practices and products. This post justifies a need to learn a holistic perspective on the energy system.
Academic disciplines abound to study specific sectors of science or the economy. However, an academic discipline of ‘energy’ does not exist. Rather, this hybrid topic touches on all types of academic disciplines. Nonetheless, there is a need to understand both the importance of teaching and learning about the broad energy system to develop deeper understandings within a discipline, or even within a job or organization dealing with the energy sector.
Why study energy?
Both the study and the teaching of energy requires tactile and experiential interactions with the topic. The accountant sitting in an oil and gas firm may only see numbers all day, but are they aware how those numbers fit into the goals of the company? Energy firms and technologies are not static. Assumptions in the past, when monopolies reigned strong and infrastructure lasted decades, may have required a go-slow approach to internal and external changes. Certainly, the evolution of technology did occur as did pressure for profits from shareholders; but global markets and global diffusion of technologies reduce protected markets. The refinement of wind technology in China or Demark quickly affects power output and performance in the US wind power industry. The gas turbine business of both GE and Siemens are now low performers because of the global strength of the renewable power business.[i]
Past infrastructure like nuclear power plants, oil and gas pipelines are still useful integrated parts of the energy system. But any new expansion of plants or networks are met with arguments for investments into other technologies. New transmission lines can be replaced by localized energy storage technologies, while oil pipelines can be met with calls to increase the electrification of transport. The creation of monopolies to ensure financial returns on large scale power projects, like nuclear or hydroelectric facilities, are harder to justify as renewable and gas generation offer reduced financial risks and lower environmental impact. Replacing the old with the new takes time, money, and innovative thinking to create new services and products that (hopefully) propel the energy sector towards a more sustainable path.
The sustainable energy trajectory the world is on, can be exemplified in one example of the Trump administration attempt to subsidize and prioritize old coal and nuclear facilities over new gas and renewable energy technologies (below). The administration failed in their arguments to the US federal energy regulator that these older technologies were needed. The failed effort demonstrates the competitiveness of smaller and more nimble energy technologies. It also exemplifies who does determine the shape of the energy system: People. The energy sector is defined as the “conversion and use of energy by people,” then energy systems are also controlled and changed by people. Over long-periods of time, new energy systems are created by altering both the technologies and how energy is used.[ii] Just as people and industry moved on from cassettes to store and listen to music, so have they moved on – even just gradually – where they get their energy from.
Our place in the energy system
Mindsets on technologies and ways of doing business can dramatically shift. The growth in low-cost airlines and the dramatic change in travel patterns demonstrates the power of market competition. A similar transition occurred in the energy sector. The introduction of competitive energy markets pushes firms and governments to adjust (on a smaller timescale) to newer technologies that affect both energy production and consumption. There is an important reason to gain a broader knowledge of the energy system. This can assist individuals to understand how an individualized or group effort adjusts to continual technological, regulatory, environmental and societal changes. Gaining a basic knowledge of the integration of the energy system assists in noticing changes, adapting to imminent challenges (such as economic downturns) and planning for the future. Firms, governments, society and the environment benefit by gaining a holistic perspective of the energy system and how they sit within a larger environmental, economic and political process of change.
So how can we begin to understand our place within the energy system and how the energy system works? The ‘traditional’ energy system diagram is represented through a stepped approach of components of the power system. This chart encompasses the interconnection between natural resource use and end-user services and the conversion technologies along the way. It is a good first step in a holistic understanding. The problem, it leaves out people.
Another way to represent the energy sector is in Chart 2. Here, the two ends of the chart express characteristics of the Earth. ‘Resources’ are the tangible elements we feel and draw on everyday. ‘Environment’ is the conceptual element that expresses how we understand and experience our interaction with the environment around us. This experience can influence our decision making. From the outside-in, we can work the chart to arrive in the center where our jobs and the institutional structures reside. Here ‘people power’ can drive change to influence the choice of technologies and perceptions in society. We actively construct both our jobs and state institutions that allow the activities that affect the use of resources and the quality of the environment.
Fundamental to this chart and understanding the outside-in approach, is our individual and social roles in giving institutions permission to exploit or protect the environment. Examples abound of individuals and communities taking action to protect and improve their environment, to allow or deny the use of specific energy technologies. While there are examples of despot regimes isolated from the problems and ravaging both people and the environment, there are also plentiful examples of societal pressure inducing changes. The global switch and proliferation of renewable energy technology demonstrates how communities and nations can make a switch towards environmentally sustainable energy technologies.
How we understand energy systems changes over time. The job we hold, the personal experiences we gain from travel, the solar panels on our neighbor’s roof, energy infrastructure is all around us. The environmental impact of our energy choices is also becoming more and more apparent. The interlinkages in our energy system affects us, our communities and even global corporate giants embedded in the global political-economy. The untouchables, become touched by social and technological shifts in the energy system. Developing a broad understanding of the energy system can impact the transition towards a more sustainable energy system.
[i] Crooks, Ed, and Patrick McGee. “GE and Siemens: Power Pioneers Flying Too Far from the Sun.” Financial Times, November 12, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/fc1467b8-c601-11e7-b2bb-322b2cb39656.
[ii] Cherp, Aleh, Vadim Vinichenko, Jessica Jewell, Elina Brutschin, and Benjamin Sovacool. “Integrating Techno-Economic, Socio-Technical and Political Perspectives on National Energy Transitions: A Meta-Theoretical Framework.” Energy Research & Social Science 37 (March 1, 2018): 175–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.09.015.