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A Case Made For A Difficult Change to Sustainable Energy

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Jérôme Dangerman studied the world energy system for his PhD and concluded that the system is locked into its current situation and no transformation will come about without intervention or a crisis.  Today he will defend his doctoral thesis at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

Policy wonk thinking supposes the production and consumption of energy causes serious problems – such as global warming, pollution and geopolitical conflicts – that make the current energy system unsustainable.  Most everyone else is coming to realise that an economic transformation into an expanded and alternative sustainable energy system is essential for economic growth and stability.

For his interdisciplinary thesis, Dangerman maps out the entire global energy system in its ‘full complexity’ and the elements that play an important role, such as economics, technology, politics and sociology. He does this to answer the following question: is a transformation taking place or is the system ‘locked-in’? He concludes the system indeed is in state of lock-in and it will not transform without determined intervention or an uncontrolled crisis. So there is an assertion of hope, but only if forceful and decisive measures are taken.

That reads like a dream come true for central planning and control types as well as the military industrial complex folks.

But what about creativity, investment, consumers and markets?  In as much as the press release covers the actual thesis, Dangerman offers that an important mechanism in technological industries, which affects the classical principles of free market forces and which conserves the current energy system, is what Dangerman calls the principle of ‘success to the successful’.

The idea or “principle” per the press release is that a successful activity attracts more success, at the expense of alternatives. The question of whether alternative action should be taken is essentially not addressed – until it’s too late. That is, until the climate has been irreversibly disrupted, essential ecosystems have collapsed or energy has become unaffordable.  Dangerman asserts that for this reason it is important that the current flows of subsidies and investments, which are now primarily aimed at conventional energy, be redirected towards renewable energy.

Dangerman does observe there are still many signs indicating the absence of transformation of the current energy system.  But, he sees a ray of hope in the fact that production and consumption of renewable energy are nonetheless growing – albeit much more slowly than possible and still insufficient in absolute terms. In this phase of the system, targeted involvement of governments stimulates that growth through legislation or subsidies. The experiences thus gained in Germany are highly instructive for the rest of the world.

Just what Dangerman and the press release writer mean is quite an open question.  Germany undertook to close coal fired and nuclear power generation, only to import huge amounts of French nuclear power and Russian natural gas.  The matching up was to come from heavily subsidized solar and wind power.  The “experiences” are far from over.  For now the results are a contracting manufacturing job base and huge increases in consumer’s utility costs.  The experiences may be highly instructive, but the results are simply alarming.

Dangerman is the fellow who previously suggested in an article in PNAS is to have shareholders also pay for environmental damage.  He asserted in such measures investment flows will shift towards companies that produce and use energy more sustainably.  Well . . . the idea is a seed for an adjustment of consequences, but the possible consequences were not thought through and could pose huge risks to jobs, investment, management, tax production and economic growth.

According to Dangerman, if we continue on the current path, it cannot be excluded that critical transitions (a jargon term for irreversible crises) will occur in the global energy system and global ecosystem. “The cynic may say that the loss of an old system creates lots of room for change and innovation,” said Dangerman. “That may be true, but what is the cost of allowing the entire system to crash? Moreover, only a few of the strongest and a couple of lucky ones can absorb the consequences of a crashing system. It will be less painful to take measures now.”

The Energy System, Lock-In and Adaptation Thesis defence of A.T.C.J. (Jérôme) Dangerman begins Tuesday 5 November 2013, 12.30 hours, Radboud University Nijmegen with PhD supervisors: Prof. J.A.M. Vennix, Prof. W.C. Sinke (University of Amsterdam).

Dangerman studied law at the University of Amsterdam and worked at companies such as Philips and Nuon to set up complex international technological collaborations, strategies and scenarios.  He began his PhD research in 2007, funded by the Shell Research Foundation and Nuon Energy that was conducted in part at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.  In 2013 Dangerman conducted further research at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, focussing on the transdisciplinary aspects of sustainability and transformations of complex systems. In mid-2013 he was asked to set up a new sustainability curriculum for the Santa Fe Institute, an internationally renowned institute that studies complex problems.

Assuming the press release that was used as a source for this post is generally correct, Dangerman’s work is likely to have a circulation among policy wonk types, used to support some extreme ideas, and present another problem in the progress to a better cheaper more sustainable energy market for consumers.  It appears the Dangerman case has a great deal to do with the global warming hype and serves as food for the central planning and control wings of the progressive and populist political views.

Dangerman does offer a perspective worthy of consideration, but it’s the context and biases that cast grave doubt on the veracity of its value.

Still, most of all Dangerman’s work like so much else is still in reality – no more than a look into a crystal ball.

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