As end users of energy, we have multiple choices of fuel or technology options. Or do we?
We expect to move seamlessly from one form of energy to another while maintaining quality of life, fueling our economies, providing basic materials, and satisfying other values and priorities such as local and global environmental improvements. But can we?
In fact, comprehending the full range of considerations inherent in making energy choices is far from easy. Each form of useful energy is delivered to end users through long and complex supply chains, which bear inherent risks. We know more about most of the risks associated with older energy technologies, which have been mitigated to a great extent thanks to public scrutiny. In contrast, we are still learning about the risks associated with newer technologies because these options have never constituted a large enough share of energy supply to attract significant scrutiny. Consider the backlash against many forms of biofuels owing to their negative impacts on the environment, and agricultural and food industries. The signs of controversy are also emerging for critical minerals necessary for batteries and solar PV panels.
When it comes to energy-economy-environment “trade-offs” perception and reality are particularly complex. Often the full supply-to-end-use chains are ignored. We worry a great deal about environmental “externalities” – environmental costs associated with producing and using different forms of energy that may not be fully captured in market prices. We rarely talk about “positive” externalities – benefits that are created and not measured.
In sum, although we often talk about energy choices as if many of them and the associated trade-offs are a fait accompli, the trade-offs and considerations are multidimensional, complex and dynamic. They are seldom addressed in an open, clear manner. It is practically impossible for any one energy expert to be fully educated on all of the energy options and trade-offs, much less the general public (that is, voters).
Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of gathering up enough information to evaluate the full range of considerations in order to understand trade-offs and to grapple with “unknown unknowns” and unintended consequences that will almost certainly occur. The number of dimensions for analysis is very large and change over time along with the technology development and policy discussions. The amount of data that would have to be collected and managed is enormous. Existing and emerging tools for life-cycle assessment are useful but to implement the tools accurately the life-cycle supply-to-end-use chain should be identified correctly and all externalities – negative and positive – captured.
Both the private (energy companies, large energy customers, financial institutions, and so on) and public (policy makers, news media, and public at large) domains need simpler tools to evaluate costs and benefits associated with multiple dimensions across the full energy supply-to-end-use chain. CEE Energy Webs is a dynamic lens on energy debates. We offer our assessment, informed by our decades of global experience in the energy sector and large network of advisors and industry experts. We welcome input from interested experts in any energy sector, technology and/or dimension.