Twenty-six years ago, on a wee island with just 65 residents off the west coast of Scotland, the seeds of a fascinating energy transition project were planted. That began a long process which ultimately made it possible for the island’s inhabitants to become the world’s first community to launch an off-grid electric system powered by wind, water and solar.
In the Autumn of 2023, Chris traveled to that island—the Isle of Eigg—to see it for himself, and interview some of the key people who were involved in making it happen. You’ll learn all about how it happened and what the island’s residents plan to do next in their pursuit of greater self-determination and self-sufficiency.
This is our second show in the new, place-based format we piloted in Episodes #186 and #187. Instead of exploring a particular topic with one guest who has a noncommercial perspective, as most of our shows have done so far, this new format aims to tell the stories about how the energy transition is proceeding in some of the places Chris is visiting in his ongoing travels as a peripatetic podcaster. There will be more episodes in this format to come, and we hope you enjoy them.
Should our response to global warming focus on technologies that reduce emissions, or on embracing simpler lifestyles? Why do some believe that deploying more renewables and accelerating the energy transition is essential, while others advocate for ‘degrowth’ instead, and claim that switching to renewables is counterproductive?
Today’s conversation explores a recent paper by lifecycle assessment researcher Marco Raugei of Oxford Brookes University, in which he describes an ongoing debate between “systemic pessimists” who focus on humanity’s demands for resources and dismiss renewable technologies, and “technological optimists” who focus on the technologies of the energy transition but do not address other planetary boundaries. We describe these two tribes and their beliefs, identify their points of disagreement, and try to suggest a way forward.
We’ll also discuss another recent paper Marco co-authored exploring whether there are important material limits to the energy transition. And to wrap it up, Chris offers his longest monologue yet, in which he draws a distinction between “techno-optimists” and energy transition advocates, and suggests some ways that we might advance the debate beyond its current unhelpful framing.
Ultimately, we hope this episode will persuade some “systemic pessimists” to consider shifting their narrative from doom and to refocus on actively solving problems, including the problem of global warming.
Are EV sales about to hit an inflection point and rapidly take majority market shares for new vehicles?
And if they are, does that portend a peak in global oil demand before the end of this decade?
The transportation team at BloombergNEF certainly thinks so.
In this data-packed, two-hour conversation, team lead Colin McKerracher walks us through their latest report, Electric Vehicle Outlook 2023, published in September. We explore the outlook for EVs, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in all vehicle classes. We consider the differing trajectories of EV adoption in various parts of the world, and especially the rapid uptake of two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles in Asia. We discuss the looming need for more charging infrastructure and the implications of increased vehicular demand for the utility industry. We review the changing competitive landscape for the world’s major automakers, and see which ones are leading and which ones are lagging, and why. And we revisit the question of whether the world can produce enough key minerals to keep EV production growing.
If we genuinely need nuclear power—be it older conventional designs or new, unproven small modular designs—to make the energy transition a success, then that case has not been demonstrated. Instead, nuclear advocates have primarily used political argument to support continued investment in it. Because if we just went by the industry’s actual track record, and properly internalized its risks and high costs, we’d never build another nuclear power plant again.
Nuclear power never had a proper justification as an electricity generation technology. It is an industry built on a foundation of lies, extravagance, conceit, and failure. It always has been, and continues to be, a fig leaf for the nuclear weapons industry.
The fact is that we do not need nuclear power to make the energy transition a success. Even if we did continue to invest in it and force the public to shoulder its actual risks and excessive costs, doing so could actually hinder the energy transition, not advance it.
Our guest in this episode, Stephanie Cooke, has literally written the book on the untold history of nuclear power. As the former editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly and the author of In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, she brings over four decades of experience as a professional nuclear industry journalist. She explains why, contra the recent pro-nuclear sentiment captivating climate hawks, the nuclear power industry is not at the dawning of a new age, but rather at the end of its old age.
Can ancient architectural and building techniques help us create comfortable spaces without consuming energy in today's world?
Our guest in this episode thinks so.
Dr. Sandra Piesik is an award-winning architect, author, and scientist with extensive experience in what is now called “vernacular architecture.” Among many other things, she specializes in agitating for legislation supporting sustainability and nature-based solutions to the climate challenge.
She has published two books on vernacular architecture, including Habitat—Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Climate, published in May of this year. In it, she curates the work of an international team of more than one hundred experts across a diverse range of disciplines, who examine what the traditions of vernacular architecture and its regional craftspeople around the world can teach us about creating a more sustainable future. With over 1000 illustrations, the book reveals how people and cultures have used indigenous materials and construction techniques in all five of the planet’s climate zones to create comfortable built environments, and it stresses the importance of preserving disappearing craftsmanship and local knowledge before it is lost forever.
In today’s conversation, we discuss what ‘vernacular architecture’ is, what some of the specific techniques are, how those techniques could be used today, and what’s preventing us from using them. We also discuss the role of vernacular architecture within the broader context of sustainable development, and what a holistic approach to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals might look like.
As we have discussed in previous episodes of the show (like Episodes #73, #177, and #198), state regulators and legislators can be ‘captured’ by the industries they are supposed to regulate and wind up serving those industries instead of the public interest.
Usually, regulatory capture is a form of corruption: The system isn’t supposed to work that way, but certain interests can manage to corrupt it. In Texas, however, that kind of capture isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.
In this episode, investigative journalist Russell Gold of Texas Monthly shares what he found after tracking down hundreds of documents scattered across dozens of offices around the state. Not only does the chair of the Texas commission that regulates the oil and gas business personally earn royalties from some of the very oil and gas leases she regulates, so does her family.
We also check in on the progress that Texas is making—and not making—to prevent the kind of grid blackout that happened during the February 2021 big freeze. And we ask where the limits to corruption in Texas actually are, and how rank and file voters in the state feel about it. It’s a sordid story, but an important one to understand, because it reveals a lot about the power of the oil and gas industry in the US.
A tsunami of distributed energy resources (DERs) is starting to arrive on the grid. Customers are adopting millions of EVs, rooftop solar systems, battery backup units, and other devices that can dynamically respond to grid conditions. But most utilities are not engaging with this wave proactively. Instead, they’re being reactive, slow, and even resistant to allowing these devices to connect to the grid or participate in transactions.
As we rebuild and transform the grid in the course of the energy transition, we really need to think about how to accommodate DERs. There are manifold reasons to build a decentralized grid from the bottom-up, instead of keeping the conventional, top-down, hub-and-spoke architecture based on the large centralized power plants that we have relied upon in the past. So how do we do it?
Lorenzo Kristov has been agitating for this new architecture for years, frequently issuing white papers and expert testimony to get regulators and others thinking about what the future grid should look like. And his ideas are being taken seriously, because he was a lead designer of the locational marginal pricing (LMP) market on which California’s wholesale power system operates. He has deep expertise in wholesale market design, DER participation in wholesale markets, coordination of transmission-distribution system operations, distribution system operator (DSO) models, distribution-level markets, microgrids, energy resilience strategies, and whole-system grid architecture, among other things. And he has been walking us through his vision for the decentralized grid in previous episodes of our show: #10, #94, and #150.
In today’s episode, Lorenzo rejoins us to build on our previous conversations and share his latest thinking about how to make the new energy transition grid architecture happen. We discuss market design, architecture, procurement, regulatory issues, and related topics, making this episode deserving of a Geek Rating of 10.
In this episode, we try to knit together these disparate threads with veteran regulator Audrey Zibelman, who has held senior roles at both utilities and regulatory bodies for more than 30 years. Audrey shares some deep thoughts about why regulators and governments will have to play much more creative, courageous, and ambitious roles in the future to contend with the challenges of the energy transition.
Why does so much media coverage of climate change emphasize the worst-case scenarios and the slow speed of the energy transition? Why don't more stories highlight how the energy transition is working and accelerating, reducing expected increases in carbon emissions and rendering the worst-case warming scenarios increasingly unlikely?
These are important questions, because reporting about the climate and the energy transition can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the media constantly asserts that climate change is unstoppable and that we’re doomed, people will feel discouraged and give up during a critical time in which we must make progress. Whereas by showing people how they can be part of the solution, they will do what they can and support leaders committed to addressing the problem.
It’s also important that we understand what’s real and likely, and what isn’t. An unfortunate number of stories about climate change have emphasized vague “tipping points” and “feedback loops” that might accelerate warming in the future. But those are unquantified and undefined terms referring to highly uncertain possibilities. Meanwhile, highly probable outcomes that would result from existing climate policies are barely mentioned.
So why is there so much media focus on the worst-case scenarios? A shred of uncertainty isn't a sufficient reason to emphasize the worst case above all else. Wouldn't it make more sense to focus on the likely outcomes of our existing policies?
In this episode, we're joined by a climate researcher and data analyst who finds reason for optimism on climate change. Hannah Ritchie is a Senior Researcher in the Programme for Global Development at the University of Oxford. She is also Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at the online publication Our World in Data, which brings together the latest data and research on the world's largest problems and makes it accessible for a general audience. Her forthcoming book, Not the End of the World, will be published in January 2024.
In today’s conversation, Hannah explains what converted her from a climate pessimist to an optimist, and shares her insights into why stories of climate doom seem to be more popular. We explore a number of her data analyses that support her optimistic outlook. And we discuss why it’s important to give people hope that we can address the climate challenge successfully—not by merely adopting a pollyannish attitude, but by really looking at the facts, and understanding the progress that we’re actually making.