Our power generation systems are vulnerable to shocks. Energy demand changed dramatically at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic as global oil prices fell. The Texas Superstorm shut down much of the state’s power grid in 2021.
These shocks, at least in theory, present opportunities to restructure current energy production systems, invest in energy transitions to mitigate climate change, and build the resilience capacity of the energy system.
Arguably, the Covid-19 pandemic may have prompted learning about how we govern and structure our power generation systems across different sectors and how we might build resilience in the future. Instead, we find more stubbornness than openness to change.
During the first year of the pandemic, we examined how the various stakeholders involved in energy production and governance – particularly in the oil and gas, wind and solar sectors – have thought about and responded to the global pandemic, both within their organizations and in each of these three sectors.
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We interviewed energy producers, nonprofits involved in energy advocacy, and regulators in Colorado, and reached out to similar stakeholders in New Mexico and Texas for comparison .
Despite some subtle differences across sectors and states, few stakeholders saw the crisis as an opportunity for fundamental change. Instead, most have downplayed the impacts of the pandemic on energy production.
For example, proponents of renewables viewed the continued expansion of renewables as a sign that the energy transition was working, without the need for further changes. Those working in the oil and gas sector felt they could weather the pandemic successfully, especially given their experience as a boom-and-bust industry.
Although crises sometimes spur innovation and change in society, the pandemic does not appear to have changed the ways of thinking, governing and operating in the energy sectors we studied.
Instead, key learnings were associated with real-time adaptation at the operational level to allow employees to work safely, such as moving meetings online or establishing new health protocols in the field. As one of our interviewees mentioned, “business has just moved forward, we haven’t stopped in any way, and in a way I think we’ve seen efficiencies, if anything. “
Similarly, an industry commenter noted, “It’s just about getting through this coronavirus, which is the problem, and keeping as many people as possible employed during this time.
Entrenchment in the status quo in response to shocks is perhaps no surprise. Standard operating procedures, policies and planning were already built into the system. And no doubt, figuring out how to maintain this system is a form of resilience.
However, while we want our power generation sector to weather shocks and crises, resilience also blocks innovative thinking in times that require more accelerated transitions in our power generation systems. If a shock of this magnitude doesn’t catalyze new approaches or accelerate the ongoing energy transition, then what will?
Fundamentally, we need to institutionalize the urgency and capacity for rapid energy transitions in energy governance and production systems. Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all approach will move us in this direction, but some proven options do exist.
This includes increasing the flow of information, especially from marginalized and rare voices. A few people we interviewed highlighted the need for more holistic energy planning and policy to better link generation planning with power grid planning; encouraging research and development for cleaner energy production; ensuring adequate government resources in times of budget constraints to enforce regulations; building better partnerships with communities where energy development is taking place; and pay more attention to energy inequalities and environmental justice.
Of course, listening to these voices is never enough. We need to rethink our institutions and organizations to allow these voices to join public discourse and debate. This can foster more intentional and diverse forms of crisis learning and help question the relevance of current policies and standard operating procedures in light of a rapidly changing future.
According to one of our interviewees: “If we don’t get everyone talking on the same page and using an experience like Covid as a case study to see why it’s so important , then we’ll just have these little pockets of thinking that don’t all line up to spur action.
We know that shocks don’t always lead to innovation. In fact, they often cause us to resist change or reinforce the status quo. Our research on state-level power generation systems during the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced this lesson.
However, we cannot wait for the next shock to test this hypothesis again. As one energy actor who participated in our study put it: “I think if anything this pandemic has taught is right – you better put things in order, you better plan ahead. advance, and you better be ready for anything and, and it’s all about elasticity.”
Tanya Heikkila and Christopher Weible, of Denver, are professors in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver. Alex Ose-Kojo, from Knoxville, Tennessee, is a former doctoral student at CU Denver and now an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee. Amy Pickle, of Durham, North Carolina, is director of state policy programs at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
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