Engineering a politically-practical energy plan

Engineering practical energy

Practical engineering solutions may be the key to transcending the political gridlock that confounds the energy-climate crisis.

Several days ago, Matthew Warren, chief executive of the Australian Energy Council, warned “We now risk rolling into a second decade of energy policy uncertainty. This could be catastrophic for the cost and reliability of energy in Australia… yet there is no respite in sight” [1]. It’s a situation that’s emblematic of the apparent inability of successive governments to resolve major social challenges.

We face clear threats to prosperity and welfare …

Australia, like many western countries, is experiencing rising income and wealth disparity, declining housing affordability, and an increasingly fragile health system. Infrastructure networks, while aging, are also more inter-dependent, increasing the scale of systemic failures arising from cyber-attacks, natural disasters or other causes. Not least amongst these challenges are the inter-dependent issues of a changing climate and energy security. Indeed, environmental concerns are more prominent than ever, ranked at the top of global risks (in terms of likelihood and impact), contributing to social conflict and migration [2].

… but exhibit perverse responses to those risks.

These threats to prosperity, social welfare and security are well substantiated and documented. Despite this, it’s increasingly apparent that society is failing to deal with them in rational ways. Communities around the world are exhibiting perverse relationships with risk. Take, for example, the US response to terrorism in contrast to gun violence. Over the past 10 years, new laws have been passed, agencies established and trillions of dollars spent in response to terrorism. During that time, terrorist acts have resulted in just over 300 American deaths worldwide. During the same period, gun violence within the United States resulted in over 300,000 deaths – with little response [3]. Of course, Americans are not alone in disproportionate reactions to risk.

It’s clear that stories trump data …

The causes of this apparent irrationality are numerous and cumulative. The connectedness and complexity of major challenges make them difficult to understand. So, as is human tendency, simpler stories of cause and effect are substituted and accepted (whether accurate or not), often including an enemy to blame and attack. Consider, for example, the difference in stories that could be told about climate change by conservationists, religious groups, or industrialists. These different groups are likely to gravitate to different stories, collecting and attaching ‘data’ to validate and reinforce their stories. Emotions frame ‘logic’. Assumptions replace knowledge building. And people are permitted to gain and exploit power on the basis of the most appealing story.

… and alternative truths inhibit collective progress.

A shared belief in opportunity and growth – underpinned by a shared, organising story – has been central to human progress since the earliest times of human civilisation [4]. So the lack of common, coherent and organising narratives around climate, energy and other pressing challenges is a major problem and an impediment to progress.

In Australia, despite first-hand experience of a changing climate and the escalating extremes of heat, drought, floods and wildfires [5], achieving political alignment about the need for and nature of action has been a fraught exercise. Despite an appreciation of direct and flow-on impacts of a changing climate, and the pace at which they could spiral out of control in the absence of early intervention, governments have failed to initiate and/or sustain coordinated action. Consequently, states and territories are now operating with conflicting policies and targets, undermining the overall efficiency and integrity of the energy system.

Short-term risks capture community attention …

In recent times, people have called for declarations of war on climate change [6]. The aim is to escalate and focus public attention and resources. In practice, it’s a cry into the wilderness. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard Professor of Psychology [7], explains why. Our brains have evolved to respond to threats that are:

  • Intentional: the deliberate act of an identifiable ‘enemy’.
  • Immoral: an act or phenomena that is disgusting or indecent.
  • Imminent: existing now, not at some point in future.
  • Instantaneous: emerging or escalating quickly, thus noticeable.

Terrorism fulfils these requirements, climate change doesn’t. Indeed, while many people are worried that the climate is changing far too quickly, the irony is that it might not be changing fast enough to capture sufficient societal attention.

This situation isn’t helped by a growing narcissism in society [8], nor the relative comfort of people in positions of power. The threat and benefits just aren’t great enough now to drive change.

… and can cause sub-optimal outcomes.

Some people are, of course, motivated to act to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy security. While personal choice and market forces are desirable motivators, governments must also play a role. In doing so, action to protect and enhance public value must be careful, lest perverse outcomes result. Take, for example, the escalation in gun purchase in the USA in response to growing calls to curb gun ownership [9]. Similar responses have occurred in Australia with farmers building more farm dams ahead of plans to curb over-allocation of surface water. And most recently, South Australians have rushed to battery storage and diesel generators to secure their power supplies following a sequence major storms and associated grid failures [10]. While understandable from an individual’s perspective, these actions are sub-optimal in terms of community and economic outcomes.

Confidence to invest and develop is low …

Quite simply, communities are acting in their short-term interest, against their longer-term interest. Competing interests and narratives are becoming more polarising, eroding political capital and the confidence to lead with the vision, conviction and inclusiveness required. It is a reinforcing downward spiral that shows no sign of abating. The resulting instability undermines private sector confidence to invest. This is not a technical problem; it’s a human problem.

… in the absence of solutions people love

What then might be a solution that reinvigorates development with the pace and scale required? Might it be possible to create a politically achievable solution to the climate-energy crisis outside the prevailing political process? How could we develop a solution that would be keenly embraced by the vast, central majority of the voting public and business sector, so that it is politically easy to embrace and facilitate?

So let’s reject yet more reports …

I’m not advocating more reports and enquiries, facilitated by the expert of the appropriate political colour. This would make little practical difference, provide reasons for delay, and simply produce information to be ‘cherry picked’ to service the preferred narrative. Nor am I suggesting that reports be produced to support advocacy to government with pleading calls for bi-partisan support.
I am suggesting we change the game – ceasing to blame governments for inaction (for we have the governments we voted for), and ceasing to expect political parties to cooperate around solutions.
We should craft a solution that demands attention and catalyses action. A solution that describes a transitionary pathway comprised of steps that are affordable, complementary and cumulative. A solution involving no-regrets actions and investments that build collective buy-in and co-ownership of a sustainable energy system.

… in favour of practical action.

Of course, suggestion of “a solution” is imprecise. The complex, dynamic systems we are dealing with will necessarily require some level of ongoing testing and adaptation of ideas to achieve effective progress. We may, however, reach early agreement upon the attributes required for genuine progress, being:

  • Socially inclusive, creating broadly-felt public value
  • Highly affordable to customers
  • Financially attractive, being publicly and privately bankable
  • Systemically robust and secure
  • Environmentally benign
  • Achievable via a transitionary pathway (socially, physically and institutionally)

Creating an energy solution that possesses these attributes is the ultimate ‘intentional design’ [11] challenge. It demands a collaborative multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary response. And while the solution will have critical commercial, regulatory and social dimensions, a clever technological design must exist at its heart. This is not technology for technology sake, but a smart and sensitive application of technology to fulfil a critical social need.

It’s an opportunity engineers must grasp.

This presents an arguably unparalleled challenge and opportunity for the engineering profession to lead this design project. It’s an opportunity to cultivate a stronger, trusted voice and standing in the community, at a time when trust in governments and business in Australia is at an all-time low [12]. Indeed, one might argue that not to do so would be an abrogation of the profession’s ethical responsibility and rejection of its stated purpose and policies.


[1] Matthew Warren (2017) Another destructive decade in energy policy is not an option, Australian Financial Review, 8 February, p. 39

[2] WEF (2017) The Global Risks Report 2017, World Economic Forum, Geneva.

[3] Linda Qiu (2015) Fact-checking a comparison of gun deaths and terrorism deaths, 5 October 2015, PolitiFact.

[4] Yuval Noah Harari (2013) Sapiens: a brief history of human kind, Vintage Books, London.

[5] CSIRO & Bureau of Meteorology (2015) Climate change in Australia: information for Australia’s natural resource management regions, Technical Report, CSIRO, Canberra.

[6] Erika Bolstad (2016) Bill McKibben: Fight global warming like it’s a world war, August 15, E&E News.

[7] Daniel Gilbert (2010) Global Warming and Psychology, 21 March, Harvard Thinks Big 2010.

[8] Sadie Dingfelder (2011) Reflecting on narcissism: are people more self-obsessed than ever before, Monitor on Psychology, American Psychology Association, Vol. 42, No. 2.

[9] The Economist (2015) To keep and bear arms: America’s guns, in graphics, August 10, 2015.

[10] Michael Owen, Meredith Booth (2016) Forecast heatwave for Christmas generates rush to go off-grid, The Australian, 23 December.

[11] Nicholas S. Fleming (2016) The missing key – unlocking high value infrastructure by design, Innergise Pty Ltd, Melbourne.

[12] Edelman Intelligence (2017) Edelman Trust Barometer 2017, Edelman Inc., Chicago.