Scientists tell us that with each passing year impacts from climate change become more acute, so immediate action is required – but what action? The prevailing narrative over the last decade has been to electrify everything using renewable energy (wind and/or solar) even when we acknowledge the required technologies are not yet available.

The cultish obsession with renewables – a mixture of managing by pixie-dust and mass delusion – has stymied discussions on real emissions reductions. A recent workshop in Stavanger Norway explored the role of fossil fuels as part of the solution – i.e., how do we maintain energy affordability and energy security within the context of reducing emissions. The participants called this the Energy Trilemma.

The energy trilemma is a “wicked problem”, one difficult or impossible to solve because its causes are multiple and complex, its impacts are uncertain and interrelated, and the possible solutions are wide-ranging, with trade-offs that might well cause further problems.

Solutions to wicked problems can only be good or bad, not true or false. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, so approaches should aim to improve a situation rather than solve it. Climate Change might just be “A Super-Wicked Problem”.

The “energy trilemma.”

 

“Climate change is an issue that presents great scientific and economic complexities, some very deep uncertainties, profound ethical issues, and even lack of agreement on what the problem is”

– Mike Toman,

Research Manager, World Bank

Germany’s response to climate change is an example of a wicked problem where the implemented solution revealed and created other problems. Its climate action plan was to phase out coal generated electricity, putting its faith in renewables and the shutdown of its nuclear plants. The Ukraine war has ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of the green-energy transition, forcing Germany into a real-time energy experiment.

Recently, German States Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer said the efforts have failed and is now demanding that remaining nuclear power plants remain online. In the meantime, coal-fired generation is increasing.

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“Coal demand is stubborn and will likely reach an all-time high (worldwide) this year, pushing up global emissions,” said Keisuke Sadamorie, the IEA’s director of energy markets and security. Ironically, even activist/environmentalist Greta Thunberg, in a recent interview with German journalist Sandra Maischblerger, said it is a bad idea to close down existing nuclear power plants while increasing coal generation.

From a climate perspective it made no sense to close nuclear plants by 2022 but leave the highly polluting and carbon-spewing lignite coal plants on till 2038. Germany essentially “destroyed the old house before the new one was built”.

This is the first F-150 Lightning to arrive in Estevan. It was seen charging at Peavey Mart’s free 48-amp charger. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

Here in Canada, the federal government recently announced new regulation mandating that automobile manufacturers must have 20 per cent of automobile sales able to run on electricity by 2026 – or be subject to a $20,000 per car penalty. Where will the electrical infrastructure come from to allow consumers to charge them? The feeling is the government will have to retreat from that proposal as it is too aggressive – especially considering Canada can’t seem to get anything done – more power generation, new transmission lines and hundreds of thousands of charging stations in 3 years.

Author John Lorinc, in his book Dream States, notes that electric vehicles are large engineered machines that require a lot of mining and minerals to make the components and concludes EV’s are not an environmental panacea by any stretch of the imagination, and are far from the first step to save the planet. Colleen Kaiser, Ottawa based Smart Prosperity Institute, notes that vehicles that drive the most – fleet vehicles such as taxis and delivery vehicles – should be the ones to electrify first – not personal vehicles.

The embrace of electric transport will require generating even greater quantities of electricity and in Canada the current government and environmental lobbies say this must come from renewables. Weather-dependent energy such as wind and solar are simply too unpredictable to power modern economies reliably, meaning that conventional energy sources – gas and nuclear – remain essential to buffer the volatility by fluctuating inversely to wind and solar power. Currently there is no economic solution for energy storage from renewables and while progress has been made in battery storage for grid stability issues, the projected need for grid-scale capacity requires greater efforts.

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Canadian energy researcher Vaclav Smil says: “The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking.”

Former US vice-president Al Gore’s chief scientific adviser, Jim Hansen, who put global warming on the agenda in 1988, agrees: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.” Eventually, we will start asking what could have been done with the hundreds of millions squandered on wind and solar as a result of that fanaticism.

This is a wicked problem as current climate policies impose costs on the present to reap future gains. We are psychologically inclined to not make that kind of commitment. When costs begin to impact living standards and voter appeal, we give in to the temptation, wriggle out of commitments and/or change governments, and let the future take care of itself. How many COP commitments announced by governments have actually been met?

 

Wicked Problem: Societal problem with contradictory knowledge involving a vast number of people and opinions. Every solution offered exposes new aspects of the problem, requiring further adjustments. Onshore wind turbines – the technical problem of developing onshore wind power is – for the most part – a relatively tame problem. However, developing onshore wind power still exhibits wicked problems; • Polycentric governance increases complexity and value divergence • Limited land availability & land use conflicts • Species & nature conservation • Lengthy permitting processes • NIMBY -multiple hurdles for com-munity wind projects • Indigenous claims of green colonial-ism • Norway has not issued new permits since 2019. • USA -31 big wind and 13 big solar projects vetoed

A successful evolution of energy use must be done strategically. The reason we use the fuels we do today is because they are convenient, reliable, and here in North America an incredible bargain. Elsewhere, it is estimated one billion people are in energy poverty and that number will grow as global population adds another two billion by 2050. At a Gas Conference a few years ago, delegates representing Africa and South America expressed their distrust over wealthy nations dictating they must curb their energy use. The developed world has one set of views about what needs to be done while the developing world has a completely different set of views. Their economies need more energy – curbing oil and gas in Africa will do little globally. These developing countries said access to natural gas is critical as their population’s well-being is negatively impacted by the use of dirty or polluting cooking fuels such as charcoal. The developing world needs much more energy. They need affordable energy. They need it now.

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One characteristic of a wicked problem is nobody owns the problem and no-one has a clear idea of how to work out the answers. We need to realize that this problem is unprecedented because of the numbers — billions of everything — and the pressure of acting rapidly. This doesn’t make it hopeless, but it makes solutions excruciatingly more difficult. As with other wicked problems, such as poverty and drug addiction, simply throwing money and technology at a problem will not make it go away.

Canada is an incredibly large country, with wild swings in weather, challenging geography, and a small population. Our energy systems must be resilient (capable of handling surprises) and reliable (available when needed). The last two winters have revealed a few cracks – Hydro Quebec asking customers to conserve electricity; Alberta’s Electric System Operator (AESO) issuing grid alerts and asking customers not to charge EVs; electric lines downed by weather in Ontario; and on the days when needed most (both hot and cold) renewables such as wind were virtually non-existent.

 

So where do we go from here? First let’s recognize that each geographic region in Canada has certain natural resource advantages, such as hydro, petroleum and minerals – but they are not shared equally, so each region needs to find ways to flourish under the lowest GHG emissions it can.

From a wicked problem perspective, implement plans that will help the situation, no matter what. While no serious commentary about zero emissions from electrical generation can occur without having a conversation on nuclear power, let’s leave that for now.

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The most practical thing to reduce emissions is to rapidly close down as many coal-fired power plants as possible and replace their generation with efficient natural gas. By 2023 Alberta’s power generation will be coal free. That’s quite a shift as coal represented more than half just eight years ago. While not zero – it is a movement in the right direction.

Consistent with improving the situation is the need to 1) use less energy – why / because replacing it is really expensive; 2) quickly make existing energy as clean as we can – can’t wait for an undiscovered technology to “save” us; and 3), energy security through diversification will come at a cost – but our economy and way of life depend on it.

As a country we’ve been moving to lower-carbon sources or noncarbon sources for decades. Moreover, we’ve been making our burning of fuels much more efficient, effective and less environmentally harmful. We have continued to make our extraction of oil and gas less GHG intensive and have come to realize the entire world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible. This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. So, Canada, let’s accelerate the de-carbonization our oil and gas extraction for the world’s benefit, not just ours. Norway is doing it – let’s not get left behind.

 

Ken From retired as SaskEnergy president and CEO in 2022. Prior to that he held similar positions with the Petroleum Technology Research Centre, Technical Safety Authority of Saskatchewan, Raven Oil Corp. and Prairie Hunter Energy Corp. 

 

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