In an anti-industrial landscape, where does energy education go from here?

In the summer of 2014, this website joyously arrived onto the world. Joyously for me anyway – almost no one cared, just me and a number of helpful friends I could count one hand. With fingers to spare. The purpose was to fill a void in energy discourse; to try to make energy education accessible to average citizens with no direct exposure, that is, whose lives were removed from oil and gas except as end users who knew nothing of the stuff except the price, that it smelled bad, and that it was always, always there when needed. Existing sources, while factual and correct, were so dry and sterile and uninteresting that people would choose to go to the dentist instead of perusing.

The first few years were particularly fun, explaining how fracking works and how oil and gas is actually found. It seems odd now, and maybe it still does for some, to have to explain that an “oil reservoir” is actually a dark stained great big piece of rock, and not a swimming pool far underground. That started to change as the world started to notice the concept of fracking. For people trying to educate the world on how their energy actually arrives at their house/gas tank/barbecue, it was great to see these topics enter the general lexicon. Fracking unfortunately has suffered from a negative PR campaign, and a bit of a money pit, but it has changed the energy fortunes of the US in particular, and helped the country recover from the financial crisis (through cheap oil and gas prices) as well as reduce emissions (as cheap natural gas replaced coal as a power source).

About that time, 2014 or so, there were still widespread discussions about the “peak oil” – the notion that oil production was about to peak, or at least cheap oil production was about to peak. The globe has been quite thoroughly poked and prodded in in the search for hydrocarbons, and the cheap, easy to access reservoirs had been mapped out and exploited. Oil exploration – the search for new deposits – pushed out ever-farther into inhabitable places like the arctic and former Soviet states whose names no one could pronounce.

Also about that time, OPEC was jerking the world around by manipulating prices, an old hobby of theirs, and in late 2014 engineered a huge fall in the price of oil that was massively destabilizing to all other producers. I wrote on this site about how we needed more wind and solar energy to start planning for a world that couldn’t be dictated by OPEC; from a super macro level it seemed apparent that the world couldn’t rely on the shale revolution indefinitely to provide energy security.

That joy was pretty short-lived. Anti-petroleum forces gathered strength with astonishing speed over past few years. What had been an emerging discussion on diversifying energy sources turned into an existential fight for the existence of the sector, an oddly insane fight, given the overwhelming dominance of hydrocarbons as the source for the world’s standard of living. The Covid-19 experience has taught us not just how valuable the resource is, but how quickly demand bounces back even with air travel and international tourism nearly at a standstill.

Renewable energy investment continues at a frantic pace, yet is unable to keep up with energy consumption as the world reaches for a higher (and better) standard of living. Countries that make substantial headway in spreading energy-source diversity (Germany, Australia) run into logistical issues long before they are able to even quit building hydrocarbon power sources (Germany, the world’s greenest experiment by far, just opened a new coal fired power plant – a step that appears wildly backwards, from an emissions perspective, compared to even Canada which is rapidly phasing out all coal fired power plants). The first ten or twenty percent of an energy transition is rapid and exhilarating, but the path gets much, much steeper beyond those levels.

What is the next reset for energy education? What will it look like in 6 more years? Will governments the world over have crushed petroleum and petroleum producers, as demanded by a certain stratum of society that is assuming control of policy yet is far-removed (and getting farther) from the production of anything? How does this play out? Nauseating, but interesting, times.

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6 Comments

  1. roaddog says:

    On the current trajectory, in six years no one will be willing to suffer the ignominy of education. There are social injustices to be protested.

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  2. Rand West says:

    Alberta’s grand experiment in the oilsands certainly has been undermined by the shale / tight oil boom in the U.S. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next

    Much of the opposition to pipelines is being funded or at least promoted by competing commercial interests and countries. It’s silly, ultimately all we can decide is which product flows, in which direction.

    Some people here in Alberta might find it strange that I drive an electric car and have solar panels, They’ve been been quite an education about energy, weather, and the real world practicality of the new technology in Alberta’s climate. (We’re not cutting the gas pipe anytime soon, we might instead add a micro cogen system)

    But Vaclav Smil’s book ‘Oil’ will only set you back about thirty bucks, I highly recommend it.

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  1. […] Energy literacy has never been strong – as our society’s comfort grows, we take for granted all the industrial processes we can’t live without. With our dominant and critically vital energy sources under ferocious attack from armchair quarterbacks, where does energy education go from here? (And Happy Independence Day, American friends.) Read on… […]

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