Reflections, commentary and analysis from Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.
Let’s hope renewables avoid nuclear’s sorry fate. Fifty years ago, the atom was full of promise. Electricity would be too cheap to meter and the world would be made safe, peaceful and rich. Today, Fukushima is but the most recent reminder that public backlash can damn the most hopeful energy technologies. Fretting over a nuclear-style fallout on renewables might seem unjustified. But such a future is all too plausible if we think money and technology are renewables’ only barrier. Public engagement matters too.
Advocates for renewable energy too often assume the public will welcome solar, wind, and their happy kin as the path to green jobs, energy security, climate stability, and energy access for the poorest of world. Should there be any doubt over renewables’ presumed innocence, consider the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) rosy remarks to the UN that “any investment made in renewables today will bring us a step forward in achieving our goals.” In 2008, the nations of the world created the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to promote the global adoption of all forms of renewable energy. The barriers to this global transition, as IRENA sees it, are technical, administrative and financial. Public engagement is all but ignored.
Public engagement was likewise an historical afterthought for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—IRENA’s chastened older sibling. Of course, nuclear and renewable energy entail very different risks, opportunities, and technologies. Nuclear power plants are massive, centralized, radioactive swords of Damocles; solar facilities are modular, dispersed, and, in operation if not production, non-toxic. Yet, on a deeper level, these differences mask a fact the IAEA ignored: Energy transitions inevitably introduce winners and losers, for to disrupt the production, distribution and use of energy technologies is to disrupt to structure of society itself.
To be sure, great benefits could be had from a prudent transition to renewable energy. But, mishandled, that transition will come with matching costs—in public resentment, habitat despoliation, social inequity, or other consequences not yet foreseen. How sad would it be then for a clumsy transition to cause renewables to fall from grace. But judging from the history of clumsy energy, transitions are the only kinds we know how to do.
Cracks are already forming in renewables’ public facade. We don’t have to look as far as protests against the hydropower on India’s Narmada River in the 1980s, or the biofuels-implicated tortilla riots in Mexico 2006. Even those greenest of energies, wind and solar, are each year more entangled with the blighted elite over another Cape Wind, or local communities, like those against California’s Ivanpah solar facility, fighting for some forgotten sub-species of tortoise or unknown patch of “old growth desert.”
If IRENA were truly planning ahead, it would note renewables’ early dissenters, and learn from the travails of nuclear energy and the IAEA. No amount of investment is sound that does not mind the winners and losers to surely shake out along the way. To think otherwise is to court the polarization that has paralyzed the uncomfortably close politics nuclear energy.
The world can do better, if it only takes the time to meaningfully engage the public in designing, siting, and operating future energy systems.
Fortunately, IRENA is well-poised to engage the public on energy, and to do so on a worldwide scale. The agency is a self-described “global hub of knowledge and information on renewable energy, bringing all stakeholders to the global policy dialogue.” For the time being, these stakeholders are the governments, developers, researchers and investors charged with dismantling the technical and administrative barriers to a renewable-powered world. This is a good start, but others too must be heard, early and carefully. Efforts like the World Wide Views on Global Warming offer models on how global engagement might proceed.
With hindsight unavailable to nuclear’s stymied past, stakeholders should also include the poor, the concerned, and the not-yet-heard. IRENA is right that green energy has much to offer the world. We cannot afford for renewables to go the way of nuclear.
Chad Monfreda is a graduate research associate and an IGERT fellow with the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is also a doctoral student in ASU’s Human Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program.