No-Nonsense Musing on the Energy Transition

Sarah Miller
6 min readJan 6, 2024

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably confused about where things stand with the energy transition.

Did the transition pick up speed in 2023 thanks to brisk sales of solar, battery storage, and EVs, capped by December’s COP28 declaration that the world is (finally) “transitioning away” from fossil fuels? Or is the climate crisis approaching catastrophe, with way too little being done to slash coal, oil, and natural gas use, thanks to the machinations of the oil industry and its supporters? The many year-end press and social media assessments of our predicament span that entire spectrum, and virtually everything in between.

The problem is that there is no clear answer — not that you can back up with the kind of certifiable numbers modern humanity tends to demand. The energy transition is too huge, complicated, complex, and diverse to be quantified, even by artificial, much less human intelligence. UN scientists have come up with many details that genuinely enhance understanding. But clarity on the big picture remains elusive.

So rather than take one more stab at the painting that big picture, I’m going for a few highly subjective, no-numbers, no-nonsense musings on bits and pieces. It’s not comprehensive. Sometimes it may seem contradictory. More like real life than laboratory-based science.

To Grow Or Not to Grow?

That is, indeed, the question. We humans are at a point where we must choose between expanding energy consumption and retaining a climate that will not cook or drown us all. We cannot have both. When governments first shut down entire economies in 2020 due to the pandemic, global energy use fell and CO2 emissions fell. When economies geared up again, emissions grew again. That’s how it works. You can’t have one (economic growth) without the other (more energy use). You can lower the ratio between the two by being more efficient, but probably not to zero.

Emissions will top out before long, nonetheless, given how rapidly renewables are being installed. But the phase-out will be slower and require more raw materials if overall energy use keeps growing.

The Covid closures provided more than a breather in emissions growth, though. They created a space in which we saw what a less industrially polluting and consumptive world might feel like. As individuals, many of us liked the slower pace, once we could get back outside and see our relatives and friends again. But even though national governments demonstrated they can engineer dramatic degrowth, none show much inclination to reign in mindless economic activity in the name of the climate.

If the Earth is going to be saved, we’ll have to do it ourselves. We need degrowth, and we can get it at a personal and community level by buying less and repairing and reusing more. Whether or not enough people do this to save the climate doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right thing to do. Or the likelihood that doing the right thing will make us happier.

Nearly Zero, Net of Nothing

The entire idea of “net zero emissions” as a final resting place for the transition has gone wildly off track. Maybe the escape hatch it provides was useful in a positive way at some earlier point. But by now, it has morphed into a slogan that binds nobody to nothing, while constraining creative thinking about the mess we’ve created. The notion of “net zero,” like so much to do with transition accounting, stems from countries and companies trying to say they’ll get rid of fossil fuels altogether, when all they know how — or perhaps ever intend — to do is to stop most fossil fuel use.

From the beginning, net zero was all wrapped up with another big faux pas: carbon emission credits and, worse, offsets. These just create the often justified impression that the designers of the transition want to allow wealthier countries, corporations, and individuals to pay others to do their carbon cutting for them. A bit like the medieval sale of indulgences. As if that weren’t bad enough, the concept of net emissions assumes we have some reasonably accurate idea of how much carbon a given tree or cubic meter of soil will remove from the atmosphere.

Better if we aim for Nearly Zero Emissions Net of Nothing, and everybody does their own part. We have plenty of markets and gambling opportunities. We don’t need to “trade” carbon emissions or buy phony offsets. We need to stop emitting carbon.

Other Pet Peeves

While I’m listing my pet peeves, there’s always carbon capture and storage (CCS). The best thing you can say about CCS is that it’s a brilliant diversionary tactic adopted by the oil industry and its supporters, including in the US government. But it’s not going to make the Earth safer or healthier. On the contrary. And aside from environmental risks, the technology is way too expensive for broad use, as anyone who looks at it seriously must surely know. That’s why oil companies aren’t actually spending much of their own money on it.

Another perpetual favorite of the save-everything-but-the-carbon crowd is nuclear power. It is second only to CCS in being absurdly expensive, and it is not nearly as dependable as its advocates claim. Small modular reactors (SMRs) were put forward as the solution to Big Nuclear’s problems a few years back, but they’ve now been discredited in the US, done in by the small Utah utilities who had mysteriously agreed to buy their hugely overpriced electricity. Like their large counterparts, SMRs cost too much and take too long. Ditto, in spades, for cockamamie concepts like fusion energy.

Maybe someday Bill Gates or some other bubbly billionaire will find some magic energy source and solve all humanity’s problems. But it’s hardly the sort of hope sensible people would build a transition around.

In all these cases, it would be much better for the climate if we just get on as quickly as possible with what we do know how to do. Holding a few natural gas or even coal-fired power plants in reserve for a cloudy month in 2050 when the wind doesn’t blow is not clearly worse for the climate and certainly not for the Earth than expending huge amounts of energy processing and burying carbon in the CCS manner. Or building a bunch of hugely overpriced nuclear reactors.

Getting On With It

Simplicity isn’t needed only to describe the transition, it’s key to making the transition work enough by 2030 that you don’t need to panic about how we cover the last 2% of our energy “needs” in 2050. The just-get-on-with-it notion boils down to building as much renewable generating capacity as possible and using storage to deal with its intermittency.

That means building both solar and wind to take advantage of the fact that they often work best at different hours of the day and night. It means accompanying both with lots of battery storage of different types. Some batteries with quick, flexible power release; some designed for slow release over longer periods. The balance between these various bits of equipment will differ depending on geography, but the principle works in most places most of the time. If it only works 90% of the time instead of 100%, we’re still 90% better off. Let’s get on with it.

Then there are the electric vehicles large and small, the heat pumps, and all the other cheap and cheerful gizmos involved in electrifying our lives. They work. We just need to build and buy them. Pretty simple, really. It can be done pretty quickly, too, if we use the clean energy and transportation manufacturing capacity the world already has, much of it in China or owned by Chinese companies and located in other parts of East Asia.

Western countries can build their own solar equipment factories if they like, but to make all this work as soon as needed to prevent global baking, they need to buy solar panels and batteries from China in the meantime. It’s that simple.

“Energiewende — Energy transition” by florianric is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Sarah Miller

I am applying the experience of decades in energy journalism to help you navigate the energy and social transitions of our times.