The renewable energy revolution: Transforming our thinking

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'The reality is our modern world can efficiently and effectively run on renewable energies ... the problem is not technological but rather economic and sociological,' writes Stuart Andrews.

IF YOU BELIEVE the hype about renewable energy, the optimistic among us might be lulled into a false sense of hope.

You might believe that in the very near future we are all going to be consuming renewable energy, going about our business just like we always have done — only cleanly and sustainably.

Through technology and innovation, we will harness the power of our environment, converting solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass to abundant renewable energy sources that will power our clean new world. We will overcome our near insatiable demand for fossil fuels, halt global warming and learn to live sustainably and responsibly.

Of course, there may be some minor obstacles; big oil and coal will do their darndest to block progress. Political and industrial luddites will cry foul, questioning the veracity of these newfangled technologies. The political left may proclaim a new era but will back off quickly once people start losing jobs. We will have the political right forecasting economic ruin at least until someone works out how to turn a profit. But in the end, with the benefits of new found renewable energy, it will be “clean” business as usual.

This is the hype and the expectation of a growing number of people. Unfortunately, it will not be as simple as that. Part of the problem is that we are tempted to consider renewable energy as just another disruptive technology. A disruptive technology is something that, for technical, social and economic reasons, overcomes an existing business model and reshapes one or more industries.

The automobile replaced the horse, the phone replaced the telegraph, the cell phone rewired the telecommunications industry. So too PCs, smartphones, the internet, Google, Facebook and a host of other innovative technologies, have triggered revolutionary changes in their respective industries, not just destroying what has been but creating something new in its place.

Each of these changes start with a technical innovation that lends a competitive advantage to somebody or something in an existing market. There are, invariably, losers and winners and the nature of these innovations can have far reaching transformative impacts in how we do business, live, communicate and socialise.

However, the defining trait of these market disruptors is their ability to trigger market changes based purely on economic principles of profit and loss. In this sense, successful transformative technologies are market motivated. Any social or cultural change is a causal effect of that technological development.

Renewable energy technologies are certainly disruptive, but not in the way we perceive typical economically disruptive technologies. To be a true disruptive technology in the conventional economic sense, it needs to be advantageous to the point that it will financially challenge, overcome and eventually supersede its entrenched rival. Under existing market conditions, that is not the case.

When it comes to renewable energy, the framework for change is fundamentally different. Our existing socioeconomic architecture is not amenable to renewable energies. In fact, there are no renewable energy sources in the world today that can conceivably replace fossil fuels in the way we currently consume energy. Many of us are hopeful, waiting for that “killer app” or paradigm shifting technology that will transform the way we consume energy. The reality is, this is not likely to happen any time soon.

Given our current train of socioeconomic progression, migration to renewable energies will only come about as a result of two possible scenarios: either we exhaust our non-renewable energy resources, or we pre-empt environmental catastrophe with far reaching socioeconomic change. The first scenario is inevitable; the problem is how much damage we cause before we transition. It should be obvious that the optimal scenario is timely, self-prescribed socioeconomic change.

The reality is our modern world can efficiently and effectively run on renewable energies — the technology is already there. The problem is not technological, but rather economic and sociological. Our existing socioeconomic construct is built on conspicuous consumption, concentration of resource and the cultivation and exploitation of mass markets. Many of us call this “growth” or “wealth creation”. In reality, it is a grossly inefficient and wasteful application of energy that focusses unduly on the conversion of material resource to monetary value. Renewable energy, by its very nature, contradicts the fundamental underpinnings of consumption based economics.

The migration to a renewable energy economy will not come about as a result of some marvellous new technological innovation. It will only happen when we collectively, as a society, want it to. In that sense, the renewable energy revolution will be a true revolution and not a causal result of a new market innovation.

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