During a live remote event on May 28, Dr. Scott Tinker, Chairman of Switch Energy Alliance, shared his perspective on the interrelated areas of energy, economy and environment and urged attendees to join the “radical middle,” which focuses on real-world solutions that address the important needs of each.
Tinker shared with attendees his perspective of global energy pre-pandemic, what’s changed during the pandemic, and what changes are likely post-crisis. His analysis included an overview of different energy sources and how that mix has shifted through the years.
He pointed out the strong correlation between energy consumption and economic development — high income countries use more energy; low income countries use less. More than 2.5 billion people live in some form of energy poverty, Tinker said.
Tinker also delved into America’s energy production and consumption and the impact of CO2 and other pollutants on the environment. He emphasized the remarkable achievement of America’s energy producer in meeting the carbon emissions reduction targets for 2030 specified in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. American power generators will hit that level ten years ahead of schedule and without benefit of a national plan.
The US is the first country to reach its target despite not being a signatory to the agreement.
The COVID Effect
In the Spring of 2020, governments initiated quarantines and social distancing intended to limit spread of the infection. The resulting economic slowdown sent unemployment soaring and slashed demand for fuel as people stayed home. That drop in demand caused oil and gas prices to crater, caused curtailments of solar and wind installations, and created refueling challenges for nuclear energy facilities.
The silver lining, Tinker said, was the environment getting a temporary reprieve as greenhouse gas emissions decreased. The pertinent question is what happens next, when governments allow the economy to come online again.
“Demand is going to start to turn around and it’s going to start to pull on supply,” Tinker said. “Supplies of all forms of energy have been cut, so as demand pulls the supply won’t be there and we will see a price shock.”
Every form of energy has been impacted by lower prices and dampened demand, Tinker said, and every sector of the energy industry has sought some form of government help. Because government policies and capital investments are swayed by public opinion, Tinker said it’s an open question whether public opinion will evolve, and perhaps even converge on a consensus view of energy.
While he does anticipate changes when the pandemic has passed, Tinker first looked at things he doesn’t think will be significantly altered. Chief among these is energy infrastructure. That means people living in energy poverty are likely to continue to do so.
Tinker said that energy infrastructure, which drives the energy mix, is expensive and slow to change. Because COVID-19 came on rapidly, the energy mix coming out will be what it was going in. He also said the pandemic won’t have a significant on population growth.
What could change, Tinker said, are energy opinions and attitudes. What he’d like to see is a convergence of opinion in what he calls the “radical middle.” To Tinker, that means mutual acknowledgement of the life-improving benefits of energy — constituencies shifting their thinking to acknowledge the idea that sustainable energy transition is not from “dirty” to “clean” but instead when energy is used to lift humans from energy poverty and the environmental impacts of all forms of energy are recognized and minimized.
Moving away from the divisive and oversimplified portrayal of “good” and “bad” energy towards energy-economy-environment common ground would be a powerful and positive outcome of the COIVD-19 pandemic, Tinker said.
For much of the past two years, Tinker has traveled the world to film a documentary illustrating the crisis of energy poverty. Some 2.5 billion people live in some form of energy poverty today. Access to secure energy impacts all other major humanitarian issues, including hunger, shelter, clean water, education, healthcare, human migration, empowerment of women, and more. Those who do not have energy access suffer from energy poverty.
With partner and Emmy-winning filmmaker Harry Lynch, Tinker has produced Switch On, a new film which examines the human story of energy poverty to raise awareness of this global problem. They traveled to rural villages and urban slums in Colombia, Nepal, Kenya, Vietnam, and Ethiopia to discover some of the creative approaches being deployed to bring electricity, water pumps, cook stoves, and irrigation to those with no energy.
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