As someone who works in the energy and sustainability area it can appear that the number one challenge on everyone’s mind is how we reduce CO2 emissions to reduce/avoid damaging climate change. Every big organisation has targets and commitments, every local council has a plan and so do countries. We have essentially set ourselves of decarbonising energy by 2050 and that is a massive challenge, we need all shoulders to the wheel, surely?
But what if by 2050 it turns out to have been easy? What happens if the transition of the past twenty years has reached a point where the market can take it from here? I think you can see the signs of this happening. (Explicit) subsidies for renewables are being reduced, amazingly competitive supply chains are developed or developing in renewables and in the power sector we are inching towards a market where we can all be suppliers and consumers, from my house to Drax power station.
Markets tend to converge on one or two answers and then focus on them. For example the reason we drive petrol/diesel vehicles is not because we undertook a detailed analysis of the best way to propel vehicles in the late 19th century and decided on petrol/diesel, it is because they developed an early advantage and then all of the investment and development followed to the point where they became the only option and the supply chain so advanced that you can now drive around the world, always within driving distance of a petrol station. I think the same is happening with the energy transition now. Globally it would seem that solar and wind will dominate, with biofuels, hydrogen power, nuclear, gas and other bits and bobs making up a declining fraction of the supply over time.
Once you get to that point we may not need people in the public and private sector working in this area. If the answer does turn out to be one or two technologies that are commoditised then there are a lot of technologies and people that will not be needed and this is where we may get in the way. There are hundreds of thousands of people like me and a lot of people working at the softer end of energy and sustainability who love our work; we are generally well paid, get that warm feeling inside that what we do is for the greater good, and fly around the world telling everyone about it. We are likely to convince ourselves and try to convince others that we are still very much needed.
I am not saying this is the case right now but I think hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) vehicles are a case in point that may show the future for energy as a whole. I would argue that the debate about the future of power for vehicles is over; the answer is batteries. We already have cars that can drive >250 miles on a charge that are only a bit more expensive than diesel vehicles and it is already possible to see a clear trajectory to electric vehicles actually being cheaper. But there are lots of people working in HFC (and other) vehicles, research grants, etc., and if I am right there is no need and that will come to an end. (HFCs have other purposes, I am just illustrating a point.) If it is the same with energy then we need to ensure that we aren’t wasting resources looking for new answers when we have the right one already. It may seem incredible now that our energy problem will be solved easily by 2050, but solar looked ridiculous ten years ago and energy storage five years ago and with the pace of technological change and investment I actually think we will get there easily if we don’t get in the way.