How do we transition to a renewable society?

Earlier this year, The Rescope Project launched with a forum series titled Regenerating Society, run in conjunction with the annual Sustainable Living Festival. The final forum, ‘Renewable Energy and Beyond’, focused on what transition to renewably powered societies asks of us and featured Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Richard, speaking via skype, joined Rescope Project host Anthony James, Melbourne-based energy and climate researcher Andrea Bunting, and myself. The event was introduced by Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (see the note at the end of this post for news on The Rescope Project’s participation in the 2017 Ecocity World Summit, co-hosted by MSSI).

To kick things off, each speaker responded briefly to the framing question ‘How do we transition to a renewable society?’. Anthony then opened the floor for a wider conversation with the audience. Video of the full forum is available here. A slightly edited version of my own primer follows.


To answer the question “How do we transition to a renewable society”, most fundamentally we need to engage all sectors of society, and in fact every citizen, in the transition challenge, and indeed in the great adventure that this entails. Individual citizens, civil society groups and NGOs, businesses, government, everyone.

At the political level, this requires policy instruments that support and influence such a degree of engagement, and that support people in working together towards a common goal. The Tradeable Energy Quota (or TEQs) system devised by the late David Fleming is the best such policy instrument that I’m aware of. It involves putting a hard cap on a nation’s emissions from energy use, with the cap reducing over time. In very brief outline, the way it works is as follows:

  1. An equal share of a nation’s annual emission quota under the hard cap is freely issued to every adult. Emission units represent 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide emitted.
  2. Businesses purchase their emission units in a weekly auction.
  3. Each adult and business is issued with a TEQs card that they use to surrender a portion of their units at the point of sale whenever they purchase fuels or electricity. The number of units surrendered is equivalent to the emissions associated with the quantity of fuel or electricity purchased.
  4. Individuals who want to use more than their free share have to buy additional units, which can occur at the point of sale for fuels and electricity.
  5. Individuals who uses less than their share can sell their spare units.[1]

What I like about TEQs is that it’s designed to close the gap that we currently have between the physical reality of our energy use impact on climate, and the political reality of social lock-in to the existing economic system. So this is the policy approach that I think can realistically support a transition to a renewably powered society.

But the central issue is engaging every member of society in that task. Present approaches typically either imply that it’s all a simple matter of technology change, of swapping out plant & equipment and building a bit of new infrastructure, driven by a tweak or two within the existing political-economic order. Or they say “forget it, it can’t be done, it’s impossible to have renewably powered societies that will allow humans to live well.” Both of these approaches are profoundly disempowering for most citizens. But I think the “easy transition” message is actually by far the more problematic one.

To see why this is, it’s important to appreciate just how strong the relationship is between a society’s energy sources and the ways that members of a society see themselves, and the ways that they think. Fossil fuels – and petroleum transport fuels in particular – have had a profound impact on what it means to be human, and even on how we perceive basic categories of shared experience, including ones as fundamental as space and time.

Much of the energy transition discourse is conducted at an extremely abstract level, where energy sources with radically different physical characteristics are reduced to a single numerical quantity, the number of units of energy in joules available over some period of time. The type of modelling associated with this abstract view is called an energy balance, and in engineering practice it is the starting point for understanding any situation in energy terms and for designing systems. It’s extremely important, and can give a very useful high-level picture, but it is only the initial starting point, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the question of energy transition feasibility.

The vastly different physical characteristics of different energy sources have big implications for the practical business of replacing one energy source with another. In working out what is and isn’t feasible, it’s the details related to these physical attributes that really matter, and that involves a whole spectrum of additional feasibility questions that need to be answered. When we move from a high-level energy balance view down into the more subtle details, it very quickly becomes much less clear that the sorts of social and economic arrangements, and even the basic human perceptions of space and time, that have evolved with the use of fossil fuel energy sources could be supported with the major renewable sources of solar and wind.

This means that in thinking about and planning for transitions to fully renewably powered societies, we need to be thinking well beyond supply technologies and systems. We need to also be looking very closely at energy demand expectations, and at what we view as “normal” in terms of the ways of life that we lead. In a renewably powered world, on-demand energy will be far more valuable than it is today, and so we’ll use it much more judiciously. But this also means that we’ll find ways of getting what we want from life that are far less reliant on having on-demand, high-quality, concentrated energy sources at our fingertips.

These changes are fundamentally social and cultural, rather than just technological or even political, and it’s for this reason that I say so strongly that engaging every member of society in the transition task needs to be our focus. It’s critically important for that engagement process that we’re upfront about the scale and nature of the challenge. It will affect just about all aspects of every person’s life. But I’d offer the observation in closing that it’s just such situations that can bring out the best in we humans.

[1] Chamberlin, Shaun, Larch Maxey, and Victoria Hurth. 2014. “Reconciling scientific reality with realpolitik: moving beyond carbon pricing to TEQs – an integrated, economy-wide emissions cap.” Carbon Management no. 5 (4):411-427. doi: 10.1080/17583004.2015.1021563.


In related news Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute is co-hosting the 2017 Ecocity World Summit in Melbourne from 12-14 July, and the Rescope Project will be in attendance. On Thursday 13th Anthony James will host a conversation titled ‘From the Consumer City to the Ecocity’ with Amanda Cahill of the Next Economy, and Sharon Ede and Jose Ramos of the Commons Transition Coalition. Then on Friday 14th I’ll be speaking at a forum featuring permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, MSSI’s Sam Alexander and Kate Dundas from City of Melbourne, titled ‘Retrofitting the Suburbs for the Energy Descent Future.’ Details are available on the Ecocity website linked above.

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