When I participate in panel discussions on the energy transition or green recovery, I find I am often faced with the question: “Looking at the future, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?” A tough question to answer in view of the climate and development crisis, but even tougher now, as we face uncertainty caused by COVID-19, the ensuing economic crisis, and rushing desire to escape back to ‘normal’.
Reformulating the question sheds light on the underlying tension: should we change? Can we change? And will we change? Unsurprisingly, my answer to the first two questions is a big “YES”.
Yes, we are able to change. But the question remains, if whether we will actually do it or not.
To be honest, I can’t answer this with so much certainty.
The renewable energy disruption is very different from technological disruptions, like the mobile phone or internet, which have seamlessly made the past norms irrelevant. Although the economic argument for renewables has changed the terms of the debate, the shift to a renewables-based energy and economic system still requires a conscious political decision – a decision that threatens the status quo and ‘power in place’.
Resistance to change, normal to some extent, is thus much amplified.
These times also underline a certain irrationality in decision making, the importance of stories, narratives, and even fairy tales (or fake news) to comfort or give hope.
COVID-19 adds another layer of complexity. In times of fear, the tension between doing new things and the tendency to go back to our comfort zones or turn in onto oneself is intensified. I recently read an interesting book that made me reflect on this: Tous centaures ! L’éloge de l’hybridation (All Centaurs! The praise of hybridization) by Gabrielle Halpern. The book explains that since Ancient Greece, myths have been created to replace an uncertain part of reality, saving us from directly confronting the reality and the fear it provokes. The myth of the centaur, for example, brings us back to the fear of something hybrid, that has no clear identity or origin.
We see this in energy: myths that renewables are too expensive, that variable renewable energy will make the grid “unstable”, but also that natural gas is the bridging fuel and that nuclear is “clean”. When we break through these myths, it’s evident that we are held back by fear of radical change. They also point us to players who have an interest in creating and maintaining myths.
Our response as a renewable energy community should go beyond debunking myths
It must speak to underlying fears. Creating deep, structural change will require three things. Firstly, we must radically change how we speak about renewable energy. Secondly, we need to change our tactics to become more strategic when influencing. Finally, we need to create connections with a new set of experts.
Those of us in the technical community assume that the facts about renewable energy can speak for themselves. But, it’s in these times of uncertainty that discussions become polarised and facts are twisted. We must remember we are speaking to decision makers who are directly or indirectly influenced by feelings: of fear, uncertainty, and hope. Our narrative must ‘hit home’ in the right way, inspiring confidence in the transition and the transmitting the urgent need for change. As a sector, this is a capability we must develop.
To build our competences for influence, we need to create connections with sociologists, psychologists and marketing experts – those who understand human behaviour and preference – to bring decision makers round to these radical changes.
2020 is a year for redefining the ‘new normal’, a process which is inherently destabilising but is an opportunity to do things differently. I’m still not certain that we will change, but I’m excited about these new routes which could help us accelerate the shift to renewables. I hope we have the collective bravery to walk them.