Despite mounting evidence from the world’s scientists of the desperate need for climate change mitigation, despite nearly three decades of international summits to come to terms with our historic challenge, we’re addicted to fossil fuels in the same manner as someone that refuses to let go of the very cigarettes that are killing him.
|Tackling Regional Resilience at small scale in local towns and small islands will teach us all how we can begin a managed transition away from reliance on old systems. (Image source: Nexight)|
For the past century and more, we’ve spent trillions building out our electric infrastructure to leverage energy stored in coal and, now, natural gas. Alongside, we’ve built our transportation system on refined petroleum – gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. The idea of walking away from these massive investments that gave us modern life seems unimaginable to many people, most notably political leaders who refuse to lead us out. When our leaders fail to underscore the critical need for mitigation, they are failing to connect the dots that lead to carbon emissions and spell doom for generations to come. So far, taking action to decarbonize our lives has proven just too big a lift for leaders and institutions, just as it has for the individual consumer.
Now, as extreme weather like California wildfires, Category 5 hurricanes and frequent 100- and 500-year flooding fill the news, regions directly affected are confronted with the need to adapt to the consequences of our collective failure to address our fossil fuel consumption. Amid the doom and gloom like the dire climate report released on the Friday after Thanksgiving (Black Friday, now that’s ironic), the inescapable conclusion for those in regions who experienced life changing severe weather is that business-as-usual has come to a screeching halt.
When PG&E enacted its Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) policy and disconnected hundreds to thousands in high wind conditions to avoid wildfires, they put millions and billions on notice that the status quo of historic reliability was wavering. Dramatic change is no longer inconceivable for Californians who suddenly lost power for days at a time. A less reliable grid means we must take action to adapt. The new reality we’ll need to get used to has a name – Resilience. And because impacts vary by region, it’s time we start talking about Regional Resilience as the key to climate change adaptation.
The engineer’s role
Designing our new clean energy future is both an urgent need and a compelling opportunity for leadership. And there’s a special role for engineers to play. As specialists in problem solving, engineers have the opportunity to take the initiative where nobody else will. For those who actually consider it, the principal challenge of climate change, beyond adapting to its impacts with regional resilience, remains mitigation – we simply have to stop carbon emissions. The Rule of Holes says, “When you find yourself in a hole, first thing you do is stop digging.”
More directly, we have to stop the extraction, production and distribution of fossil fuels…and we have to stop rapidly. But to rapidly decarbonize our economies and societies, we need new policies to support new systems and new infrastructure. As those in affected regions will tell you, life must go on, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges…we now have to do both. We have to decarbonize to mitigate climate change, even as we adapt to the impacts that are upon us. And we have to do all this more rapidly than ever before. It’s the mother of all challenges.
Resilience, “the ability to take a hit and get back up,” synonymous with toughness. The need for resilience manifests itself in different ways in different regions as the impacts of climate change become ever more evident. Beyond the recent wildfires and public safety power shutoffs hitting California, the Caribbean has experienced devastating hurricanes forever. But what have always been a seasonal challenge now in their more extreme form pose a more existential threat. The new reality of Category 5 monsters like Hurricane Maria challenges just about everything that defines modern life in Puerto Rico. With more frequent, more extreme storms, there’s not enough money to keep rebuilding the grid whenever it gets knocked over. We must contemplate what comes next. What could a resilient future look like?
Finding the answer to that question begins with understanding how two sectors that drive our economies – electricity and transportation – could transform rapidly by decarbonizing. Even though both industries developed over a century, steeped in paradigms oriented around fossil fuel combustion, we need a new set of essentials, a new paradigm in order to reset our design foundations and shift rapidly. The key to Rapid Regional Resilience lies in merging electricity and transportation into a single industry.
Designing this Transportation Electrification Transformation will help us to imagine how we can rapidly decarbonize and gain regional resilience – how we can blend mitigation and adaptation. Letting go of old ideas will make room for new, better ones. With clarity of purpose and vision, deliberate redesign can replace extending old paradigms and accidental incrementalism. We must avoid what slows us down and creates the sense of impossibility that confounds us.
What would a more deliberate redesign even look like? For starters, it would make innovation the foundation of any design plan. Incrementalism would be replaced with transformation. Engineers free to bypass inconvenient constraints would craft out-of-the-box solutions that integrate technological and business model innovation. Creative collaboration would lead to designing by leveraging each other’s best ideas, using concepts we already know, like Wisdom of Crowds, Iterative Design, The Fierce Urgency of Now and Feedback Loops. The genius of fast fail iterations is vital to going at the speed needed to match our challenges.
Tackling Regional Resilience at small scale in local towns and small islands will teach us all how we can begin a managed transition away from reliance on old systems. We can redesign or replace these systems built in an age where we didn’t have to think about decarbonization and resilience. We can be constructive by building new systems that fit our new imperatives. Our collective future depends on focusing on what we can build, rather than what we must give up, on what we can design, rather than what is seemingly impossible. Design based on creative collaboration and innovation will point the way forward to push past the inconceivable and impossible.
John Cooper is an energy entrepreneur and thought leader with 33 years of experience in a variety of pioneering roles and projects, and a nationally-recognized innovator in energy. Since 2017 and 2018, John has worked with innovative startups to accelerate DER penetration and carbon mitigation in cities, regions and countries. John co-founded REgrid.global in 2018 to provide a product solution to Transportation Electrification that provides multiple benefits to the utility, transportation and public sectors. John now serves as VP Business Development Americas for Tritium, a global leader in the rapidly growing DC fast charging industry.
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