Don’t Fear the Next Big Energy Transition

September 2, 2020

Michael E. Webber’s 2019 book, “Power Trip: The Story of Energy,” considers world history as the history of energy.

All of which is very interesting.

And what’s perhaps even more interesting is the way that history points toward the future of the world’s energy uses.

Webber, Ph.D., sees big changes on the horizon; changes he’ll outline as a keynote speaker at the ASCE Virtual Technical Conference 2020, Sept. 14-18.

Webber, who holds the Josey Centennial Professorship in Energy Resources at the University of Texas–Austin and is the chief science and technology officer for ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris, France, recently spoke with ASCE News about the history of energy and why you shouldn’t fear the next big energy transition.

ASCE News: Why do you think energy innovation and management are so crucial to telling our society’s history?

Michael Webber: If you look at the history of humanity, some of the real recent touchpoints over the last 150, 200 years center around newer forms of energy and the newer technologies that they enable.

And these forms of energy, these technologies, are all around us. They’re embedded in everything we care about in society, sometimes hidden right in front of our eyes.

So I tell the story of energy from the end uses and outcomes, which are water, food, cities, wealth, transportation and security.

ASCE News: It’s interesting to talk about energy in terms of outcomes. Is there a certain lesson learned over the years that you think we should be most aware of right now?

Webber: I think there are a variety of lessons, but one lesson I often think about is change in energy is continuous.

Just because we have an energy system today that’s composed of a certain mix of fuels and technologies doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be in the future. This is an important point, because a lot of people are afraid of an energy transition – an energy transition from coal and oil to renewables and gas or cleaner systems.

I would say you don’t need to fear that transition. You need to cheer that transition, because these transitions are typically good for us. They enable new capabilities and lower environmental impacts.

So, I often say that energy transition has been upon us for a while, and it feels like another transition’s happening now. But this isn’t something we should be afraid of.

ASCE News: Do you feel like COVID has fundamentally shifted that transition or that transition’s timeline?

Webber: Yes, and I think one of the open questions is whether the COVID pandemic is an inhibitor for transition or an accelerant.

It’s an inhibitor in that we’re busy tackling a more immediate and urgent public health crisis. The crisis manifests in multiple ways – one of which is severe economic slowdown, which might mean we feel like we don’t have the money we need to invest in new energy technologies.

But it could be an accelerant for transition because our transportation patterns are changing. One of the most obvious outcomes of the pandemic is the rise of isolation and telework. If we telework, then we drive less and that has a visible-to-the-naked-eye effect on air pollution in cities like Paris and on water pollution in Venice. It also notably reduces our consumption of certain forms of energy. The consumption of electricity stayed the same because we just consumed electricity at our home office instead of our commercial office. But our consumption of gasoline and jet fuel dropped significantly because we were traveling less. So in some ways maybe the pandemic will accelerate transition as we change our patterns.

ASCE News: As you look ahead, what is one energy development you think will be most critical to see in the next decade?

Webber: There are so many. I’ll give you two, because I can’t choose one.

If we can really master the chemistry of batteries so that we have batteries available more cheaply and with better performance, that would change a lot of things. It would enable more electrified mobility. Right now, we’re limited by range in how far an electric car can go. It also would change how we could integrate wind and solar into the grid.

And we already get those benefits with our portable devices, our smartphones and that kind of thing, but getting those benefits at a larger scale for mobility and grid management would be transformative.

So, better batteries – that’s one.

Another is if we could crack the nut on how to make abundant, affordable, clean hydrogen as a fuel that could displace the other fuels we use or as a fuel that we could use as a building block to build replacements. Then we could use hydrogen to synthesize methane or gasoline or diesel or jet fuel but it’d be cleaner. And we could start to substitute what we’re using for a lot of different applications that require heat, especially for mobility and industrial heat.

So if we can figure out a way to make clean, abundant hydrogen and if we can figure out a way to reduce the cost and improve the performance of batteries, those would be really significant for the energy world.

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