The Sustainable Energy Expert and the Public Discourse
As key actors of the climate transition, sustainable energy experts can all but avoid facing in their duty difficult situations linked to their role of propelling a major societal change. This hurdle stems from the evergreen polarisation of climate change discussion and the economic importance of the energy sector. It can materialize as misinformation or direct opposition. These difficulties emphasize the need for a strong training of experts; the financial decision-making and technical assessment that they must carry takes place in an informational environment that is itself very polluted.
Notably, the sustainable energy expert needs to steer through lobbying efforts that are carried at different levels. A first dimension of this is the contribution to the political discourse at the national, European and global levels. Concepts such as the perimeter of what is green are regularly challenged, to be enlarged beyond reasonable for economic purposes, while in other places the move to sustainable energy is slowed down by non-renewable but self-branded “transition” energy sectors.
Beyond the political level, acceptance by the general population and academic rigour can also prove deficient and require the expert to master a number of resources to engage with concerns. A particularly telling example of such challenges in the public discourse is that of the resource efficiency of solar energy. On the public opinion side, a documentary by Michael Moore released in early 2020 makes the claim that solar panel cannot compensate in use for the resources they require. In spite of being swiftly debunked, with a backing of a Nature study, damages done to a broad audience are not easily reversed, and Brandolini's law applies: the effort made to debunk falsehoods are larger than that of producing them.
What can be even more challenging for the expert is that controversies can extend to the academic dimension as well. Although the practice of diluting the research consensus is more common in other industries, renewable energies are not spared from it. Thus, on the same topic, a considerable literature is dedicated to the estimation of the energy return on energy invested (EROI) of solar technologies. A EROI value above 1 denotes a net energy gain, and a minimum between 3 and 5 is required for a technology to be competitive. In 2016, a study by two Switzerland-based consultants concluded to a value below one, using an extended concept of EROI and going against most of the previous literature. A response authored by 22 academics then disputed the results, pointing out flaws in the data and methodology to conclude to a value an order of magnitude higher. Earlier, a 2013 paper had concluded that PV and wind power where markedly less efficient than other technologies. Similarly, the response to it pointed a range of errors that would significantly affect the results.
Thus, it is important for the sustainable energy experts to develop the ability to navigate in a complicated informational environment. The task is challenging, as the evolution of the technology is also fast, and the use of data from a few years back can sometime induce significant biases. In particular, the knowledge and understanding of the underlying technologies are important for the decision making, in order to for them to evaluate the available data and produce a valuable guidance.