Politics in Science:
An Opportunity or Threat?

Paradigm Shift in the Science Community around 100% Renewable Debates

Photo Source: ILSR


The debate whether the world can meet its energy demand 100% with renewable energy has been escalated in the recent years, as more research papers are published directly aimed to debunk each other [1][2]. Meanwhile, as the 100% Renewable campaign grows wider around the globe, the nature of this debate is inevitably becoming more of a political one.

In this research proposal, the author identifies different narratives in this debate and discusses their interactions with society in a political process. In the end, the author points out how the current cooperations between scientists who support 100% visions, grassroot activists, and other fields of study have the opportunity to change the predominant mindset of the science/social relationship within the science community, and ultimately push for a paradigm shift that is needed as much as the technological advances for the transition towards deep decarbonization.

Narratives of Energy Transition in the Engineer Culture

In the famous paper of Edgar H. Schein, three cultures were identified within an organization: the executive, the engineer, and the operator culture [3].

In a broader sense, the author argues that we can generalize the three cultures into the roles of society. For example, the operator culture can be easily found in grassroots organizations or unions, the executive culture in government or entreprise establishments, and the engineer culture in STEM community.

Like any other fields of engineering, the discussion of energy transition has largely been a technical one. Craig Morris, in his recent article, categorized the discussion of energy transition into three major camps: those who believe renewable energy will can meet the global primary energy supply in the end, those who don’t, and those who think it is too late to act anyway [4].

For the first two “camps” in the engineer culture, the debate of 100% renewables is a competition over these three premises:

  1. That renewables are inherently harmful and should not grow further [5].
  2. That renewables are not able to meet the energy demand alone and should be integrated with other low carbon technology (ex. carbon storage and/or nuclear) [6].
  3. That renewables, with storage and innovative flexibility measures, are enough for a energy system.

Proponents and opponents of the 100% scenarios therefore constantly publish their own research modeling the most cost-effective and feasible way to achieve deep decarbonization, meanwhile question the validity of researches that stand for the premise that they do not agree upon.

Political Meanings of the 100% Discussion

The scientific analysis on the feasibility of 100% renewables, though densed with technical terms, is ultimately a tool for policy making.

Therefore, although some of the critics within the engineer culture on this subject may help enhance the rigidity of a particular research, they do not always affect the usefulness of these studies in a policy discussion.

For example, a common critic from skeptics of 100% is whether the new power system can handle the Dunkelflaute problem in the most extreme cases. A recent paper challenged such critic with the following [1]:

From a feasibility point of view, even in the worst possible case that enough dispatchable capacity were maintained to cover the peak load, this does not invalidate these scenarios…Any emissions must be accounted for in simulations, but given that extreme climatic events are by definition rare (two weeks every decade is 0.4% of the time; the authors even speak of once-in-100-year events), their impact will be small.”

Indeed, a current policy that aims for a system with 99% of renewable by 2050 has almost no difference from aiming for a 100% of renewable; the uncertainties of modeling and initial premises could definitely cause more deviations from the 100% goal.

Another example is the overly stressed importance of a one-and-only-one cost effectiveness approach to decarbonize the energy sector. This is in the root of the engineer culture: with accurate calculations and rigid procedures, one can always derive the optimum solution to the problem.

The role of a scientist/engineer is to give the most accurate results according to her premise and simulations. But the engineer culture also urges that decisions always made according to the derived optimum solution, which will always not be the case in real life.

Furthermore, even if one particular 100% scenario is “debunked” for the reasons mentioned above, the researchers can easily come up with other 100% scenarios that are still feasible and cost effective under another set of assumptions. For example, when Mark Z. Jacobson’s research of a particular 100% scenario [7] was questioned in 2017 [2], he modelled three new 100% scenarios as a response [8].

Of course, the skeptics can still try to debunk those scenarios. But at the end of the day, whether or not the scenarios are realistic rely heavily on the social acceptance of such policies. The focus of R&D and deployment today determines what kind of technology is technically feasible or economically viable in the future. Where this focus currently should be is without doubt a struggle of different interests groups in the arena of politics. Therefore, different “camps” of the debate ultimately have to engage with the public to gain social license.

How Supporters of In/feasibility of 100%
Engage with Society

In the roots of engineer culture, there is a tendency to avoid human factors in the problem [3]. When public engagement is inevitable, as in most public issues, the traditional approach the scientific community would take was the “informing the public” model: once the optimum solution was reached, scientists inform the public to get acceptance and debunk opinions that thought otherwise. The corresponding policy making process was the traditional “decide-announce-defend” model. This conventional model of public engagement has drawn many criticisms, even among the scientific community [9].

In recent practice, especially topics regarding sustainability and energy transition, there is a trend to take participatory democracy into the process of decision making. During these processes, scientists and engineerings are to also participate alongside the citizens during a multilateral discussion. They provide the background knowledge and facts needed for the discussion, but they also learn about the people’s concerns and preferences during the process. Such model is becoming more and more popular in municipal and community level. The most famous one is perhaps the energy talks in Utrecht [10].

Proponents of a 100% renewable future have long known the importance of public engagement, especially in a grassroot level. Afterall, in most of the world, energy transition kicked off from public demand, and the support for renewable energy continues to surpass that for other sources of energy [11].

Seeing the trend gradually turning against them, 100% skeptics are trying to set out new public relationship programs; most notably are the efforts made by nuclear advocates. However, these attempts are actually not that innovative, and does not question the effectiveness of the traditional “informing the public” model.

As mentioned in the study of Matthew C. Nisbet [12], public accountability, cost-effectiveness, and runaway technology are frames which have and still haunted the nuclear industry since Three Mile Island. Written in 2009 at the height of a so-called “nuclear renaissance”, it was out of Nisbet’s mind that the imagery of nuclear as the “cleanest, cheapest, and safe” energy source would melt down forever along with the reactors in Fukushima in just a few years later.

Today, even when part of the industry begins to pick up vocabulary such as “grassroot” “rallying support” [13], the basic premise behind their engagement is still the same model: the scientists/engineer preaches, and the public will soon listen and follow their calls. By following this conventional method of public engagement, the nuclear advocates still stick to the technocrat vision of politics in the mindset of engineer culture.

This is when an unique and important advantage for 100% supporters come in: grassroot environment activities are in their essence, natural allies to 100% renewable supporters, as renewables are the only low carbon options a community can run on its own. This concept of energy democracy has attracted grassroot activists from a wide variety of ideology, even forming the famous “green tea coalition” in US [14].

In a broader sense, the recent trend around the world of citizens buying back municipal utilities and grid operators, demanding coal phase out and 100% renewables [15][16], can be also seen as unique opportunities for the scientific community who promotes 100% to contribute to the movement.

As a result, we are seeing many 100% advocates in the scientific community also vocally participate in 100% renewables campaigns. Among them, Mark Z. Jacobson and the Solution project team [17] which he belongs to is perhaps the most famous and active.

The founding of the solutions project was a ideal demonstration of how scientists cooperate with other sectors of society to launch a 100% campaign

Another opportunity for proponents of 100% in scientific communities is the trend towards trans-discipline research in the topic. Traditionally, it is the sociologists, anthropologists or other realms of social science that focus more on the studies of grassroot organizations and their campaigns. The cooperation between scientists and activists also opens a window of opportunity for researchers from very different backgrounds to conduct mutual projects alongside. An example of this trend would be the projects being conducted in the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) [18].

Research Outlook

The trend above are well known phenomenon undergoing development. However, detailed case studies on this transition in science’s engagement in society is not yet available. For future work, it would be very interesting to study in depth how 100% advocates in the scientific community cooperates with grassroot activists and other fields of researchers. More importantly, their self-image and attitude towards the activists and their colleagues in their cooperation can also reveal whether a paradigm shift in the science/social relation truly occurs in such alliance.

In Schein’s paper of three cultures, the solution to how an organization could cope with the culture differences was not described. The author believes that if proponents of 100% in the scientific community do show a paradigm shift on how their works should engage with civil sectors, then this model of transition might shed light on how Schein’s “dilemma of 21st century learning” could be solved [3].


1: T.W. Brown, T. Bischof-Niemz, K. Blok, C. Breyer, H. Lund, B.V. Mathiesen, Response to ‘Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of100% renewable-electricity systems’, 2018
2: Christopher T. M. Clack et. al, Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost gridpower with 100% wind, water, and solar, 2017
3: Edgar H. Schein, Three cultures of management: the key to organizational learning, 1996
4: Craig Morris, Will the Energiewende succeed?, 2018, https://energytransition.org/2018/04/will-the-energiewende-succeed/
5: Michael Shellenberger, Solar And Wind Lock-In Fossil Fuels, And That Makes Saving The Climate Harder And More Expensive, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/05/15/solar-and-wind-lock-in-fossil-fuels-that-makes-saving-the-climate-harder-slower-more-expensive/#5ca5dd7b21d4
6: J.D.Jenkins et. al, The benefits of nuclear flexibility in power system operations with renewable energy, 2018
7: Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, Bethany A. Frew, Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, andsolar for all purposes, 2015
8: Mark Z.Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, Brian V. Mathiesen, Matching demand with supply at low cost in 139 countries among 20world regions with 100% intermittent wind, water, and sunlight(WWS) for all purposes, 2018
9: Jessica Pelland, Scientists Need to Stop “Othering” the General Public, 2017
10: 賴慧玲, 一場能源民主的社會學習實驗:荷蘭烏特列支城市能源對話 (A Social Experiment of Energy Democracy: the Energy Conversations in Utrecht, Nederland), 2016, http://e-info.org.tw/node/116655
11: Ørsted, Green Energy Barometer 2017, 2017
12: Matthew C. Nisbet, Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement, 2008
13: Gary J. Duarte, The Nuclear Waste Impasse Can Only Be Resolved by the Public, 2018, http://www.powermag.com/yucca-mountain-nuclear-waste-impasse-can-be-resolved-by-public/?pagenum=1
14: NICK STUMO-LANGER, Local Solar Power: Red Plus Blue Makes a Green Tea Party, 2017,
15: Thomas Blanchet, Struggle over energy transition in Berlin: How do grassroots initiatives affect local energy policy-making?, 2014
17: The Solutions Project, http://thesolutionsproject.org/
18: Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V., https://www.iass-potsdam.de/en

Note: This is a term paper of the management 1 course of the REM program. The idea behind the paper was to write a research proposal.



Covering renewable energy development and deployment around the world.

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Tony Yen

A Taiwanese student who studied Renewable Energy in Freiburg. Now studying smart distribution grids / energy systems in Trondheim.