Does Norway lack political commitment to renewables?

NOTE: The article below first appeared in the University of Oslo's quarterly research magazine Apollon, written by Trine Nickelsen, and published online 21 February 2013. It was translated with the help of Google Translator, corrected for grammar, and adjusted for clarity by gws. Links inserted by gws. It is posted here with permission of Apollon and the author. Link to original posting in Norwegian is here.

Weak political commitment to renewable energy sources

Norway spends nearly half a billion to conduct research on renewable energy sources. However, its politicians are not putting the results to good use


Illustration by Hanne Utigard: The Norwegian parliament, called Stortinget


For the first time in world history, the global community has come together and said that the basis of energy production should be changed - and that this huge restructuring process has to be driven by politics. Today, less than 15 percent of world energy consumption comes from from renewable sources, about 85 percent from fossil fuels – the latter producing large emissions of greenhouse gases and causing warming the world may not be able to cope with.

- The core of the necessary restructuring is to significantly reduce or completely eliminate the production and use of fossil energy. Since we know that the global demand for energy will increase dramatically over the next 30 years, we are going to have to produce renewable energy in new, effective ways. The political challenge, thus, if we are to make such a transition, is to make new technologies competitive in a commercial market, says Professor Olav Wicken from the Center for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK-center), University of Oslo.

He and research colleagues Jens Hanson from TIK-center and Shur Kasa from Hedmark University College are concerned with Norway's place in the international process of moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.  Norway has invested heavily in renewable energy research. The question is whether it is sufficient if we want to be involved in developing the new technologies, say the three researchers.

Research, but no transfer

Our country is better positioned to produce electricity from renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind, waves, biomass, tide-water and under-water currents than most other countries in Europe. It has put emphasis on strengthening research on renewable energy, and it has built up strong institutions with technical expertise. Much of the research is focused on creating technological breakthroughs though. But the development and use of new technologies is as much a social learning process as it is purely a technical development.

- In the ongoing public debate about renewable energy the focus is on research; major research programs on offshore wind power and other new renewable technologies have been established. But in the innovation process – when new technologies develop and spread – it turns out that it is the experience of using the yet inefficient technologies that is critical to future success. As it is, there are no forums of exchange between users and producers, which in time could lead to efficient technologies, says Kasa.

Lack of political will

Norway has not increased its production of renewable energy in the last 20 years; that is, in the period that climate change has been on the international agenda.
Unlike in many other countries, Norway has not introduced any policies to create new markets that can ensure that yet immature technologies are adopted. - We have excess electricity. There is no specific policy regarding the need to urgently develop some new, alternative energy sources and industries. Thus, there are no drivers, and this is a major challenge for Norway, said Kasa.

When new technologies are competing with established ones, usually the established technology wins, often simply by virtue of being the oldest around.
- Technologies require long training periods to be effective and thus competitive, and this benefits the well-established technologies. The market can therefore act as a barrier for new, renewable energy technologies being put to good use, said Wicken. He thinks it is difficult to predict which technological processes will become important over time.

- When short-term cost minimization is the basic principle of policy, such as in Norway, one may disenfranchise technologies that are not yet mature and therefore not as effective as compared to the most prevalent technologies. However, all existing energy technologies have had a period when they were not yet cost effective. Even the steam engine was at first not competitive when it was faced with muscle power, says Wicken.

Solar energy - a Revolution

The development of solar energy has a long history, too.
- The physics of transforming solar energy into electrical energy was already being studied in the mid-1800s. But it took over a century to develop a solar cell that was efficient enough that it could actually drive something, says Hanson. 

Researchers emphasize how important it is to establish a niche market where a new technology can have a chance to develop.
- Efforts to improve solar technology were terribly expensive. The first small niche for solar technology was on satellites. Money was not the limitation when conducting experiments to find what was a safe and efficient power for satellites. The sun could provide power for many years and it outperformed other energy sources, such as nuclear power.

It is only fairly recently that solar technology has become competitive on a larger market. Within only the last four years costs dropped by 80 percent. Power from solar cells is now almost as cheap as nuclear power. What has happened?

- The turnaround came when the use and development of solar technology became a politically motivated project, a deliberate step away from a fossil society. Over the past ten to twenty years there has been an extreme overturning in the solar cell manufacturing industry. Germany is a prime example: In the early 1990s, four per cent of its [electrical] energy came from renewable energy, nowadays it accounts for 20 percent. When markets such the German one become subsidized, we talk about large volumes. This draws in new players with new skills, creating interest in the financial community to invest, and it provides a wider legitimacy. These dynamic drivers seem to bring about improvements that make the technology more efficient. This shows the role that politics can play in the innovation process - as the technology is used, says Hanson.

Norway putting on the brakes

The three scientists are concerned about what they call the technological regimes - established technologies that are supported by research institutions, influential actors and societal norms.

- The Norwegian economy is closely linked to the fossil energy industry through the large production of oil and gas. The industry consists of powerful businesses and interest groups, and is supported by normative behavior widespread in society. An efficient infrastructure for this form of energy is established, and the industry has built a system of education and research, said Wicken.
He believes the system is also about mental structures: - There is an understanding among us of what the world looks like and how we expect it to be. The system thus enjoys a self-reinforcing position in society, and it is therefore difficult to challenge.

Also, the fossil energy system is heavily subsidized: - There are many beneficial schemes for those who are looking for, produce and consume fossil fuels, states Kasa.

Many believe that it is in Norway's best interest to maximize the value of oil and gas wealth.

- We can imagine a future competition between Norwegian gas versus renewable energy on the continent. Indeed, Norway may become one of the players that actively limit the growth of new, renewable energy sources, fear the three researchers.

Posted by gws on Tuesday, 12 March, 2013

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