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Back to the energy future: An interview with the World Energy Council's Angela Wilkinson

Renewable energy

In a world of uncertainties where it feels like all the political rules have been entirely re-written in the last year, planning for the future seems impossible. But, there are some certainties. By 2040 the world population will reach 11bn, economic and political power is shifting from the West to Asia, and technological developments have accelerated with a new pattern of digital disruption emerging.

These are some of the predetermined factors that Angela Wilkinson takes and mixes with all the uncertainties such as political and economic changes, to produce possible scenarios in her new role as the Senior Director for the World Energy Council’s Scenarios portfolio.

Her scenarios provide an intellectual space that global energy leaders, businesses, and governments can step into and see what might happen 40 years from now - if they make a particular decision today. It’s a role that Wilkinson aptly describes as “being an intellectual midwife”.

Shaping the future

Being a sort of strategic, global, virtual time traveller is something that Wilkinson has plenty of experience in. Until September last year she was head of strategic foresight at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Previous roles have included director for scenario planning and futures research at the University of Oxford and for 10 years she was head of special projects, global business environment/scenarios at Shell International limited.

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After four years commuting between Oxford and Paris, Wilkinson felt she needed a break. “I know the Eurostar menu backwards. I had always hoped we might relocate the family to Paris from Oxford but it just hasn't worked out that way. I took a gap year and I have had a blast.”

For Wilkinson, a gap year meant teaching at Oxford, consulting, and working as an independent expert. As a well-recognised authority in the industry she was overwhelmed with so many invitations that part of the reason for taking a permanent position with the council was to rationalise her workload.

Priorities

Wilkinson’s initial focus is to get the scenarios produced by the council used by the key actors in the energy sector. “The World Energy Council produced its most recent set of scenarios. And the scenarios are great to have but actually the value is in using them. We have a whole series of application work streams that involves taking the world energy scenarios as a starting point and then further developing more focused storylines of the future around different sectors or geographies, and then working out what new insights we see.”

These scenarios are not the futures we would want to see or would want to happen or even that we think will happen. They are the futures that might happen when the interplay of everything that is predetermined or uncertain is taken into account. “Whether you are in Africa, or you are interested in the future of gas, or whether you are really interested in electric vehicles or you are interested in grid technology - it is a set of frames that you can use that help you think through the storylines of the journey to the future of the energy system you might have to navigate. And the point is, if you can see those different futures then you are better placed to think about what key challenges, choices, and options you have now.”

Three stories

There are three scenarios, all musically named and pointing to what the world may look like in 2060 - Hard Rock, Unfinished Symphony, and Modern Jazz. The scenarios are constantly updated and sometime in 2018 a decision will be made to extend, refresh, add another scenario, or remove one.

“None of them has a magic bullet solution for global warming,” Wilkinson says. “They each address it in a different way. And none of them address it perfectly, because they're designed to be realistic not abstract utopia. They are designed to allow people to stand in the future and think ‘what does today look like now’? Is the new digital future going to be as productive as the industrial revolution was? Or as evenly shared? The fact that we can connect to anyone, anywhere, at any time is a phenomenal achievement in human history. The question is will we use it well or not?”

Hard Rock is about the fragmentation of geopolitics, the inwardness of the nation state, concerns about security manifesting in nationalist tendencies, a slowdown in global growth, rising inequality. Here the energy system is much more fragmented and localised. Unfinished Symphony sees a future that has stronger international co-operation around global challenges like environmental change, or cyber security. States take responsibility for these challenges, setting clear regulatory and other frameworks. Modern Jazz is much more about disruptive technologies and innovation reforming the energy sector. It’s about lots of new and different types of platform based business models. But it’s a highly innovated, creative and fast moving world. Because of the digital disruption there is a much stronger focus around electrification.

“And across all three of them one common factor starts to emerge,” Wilkinson adds. “Somewhere between 2030 and 2050, depending on which scenario you are in, we get to peak energy demand for things like coal and oil. That's not to say they don't remain a significant part of the mix, but they are not continuing to grow in demand.”

For Wilkinson, the purpose of the scenarios is all about getting people to see the realities of climate change, not what we think the reality is. “If you want to model energy supply systems you are going to have to design it for whatever envelope of climate change you are going to get. It is much more sobering when you stop talking about climate change as this sort of general thing and you start looking at what the implications are and the impact of climate change on different parts of the world. And the risks that carries to different types of energy systems.”

For Wilkinson there is a real fear that we are sleepwalking into the future. That as far as society is concerned, there isn’t really an energy problem. “The hope of the digital revolution is that in the long run it will save more energy than it uses. That is the promise, but we have to get there. And we are not going to get there in the world where nobody is putting investment into energy systems.

“I would say that I am a concrete utopist. That means I think that it is possible to be hopeful but only if we work hard for hope. I am a realistic hoper rather than an optimist or pessimist.” 

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