The role of “natural” time scales in energy system transformations
Energy systems are capital intensive, and one implication of this is “lock-in” – once infrastructure is built, there can be a significant cost, in terms of stranded capital and socio-political resistance, associated with replacing it before the end of its operational life. The cumulative inertia presented by the installed incumbent energy infrastructure represents both a challenge and opportunity for energy system transformation towards a decarbonized state.
For example, the large build-out of power plants in China during 2005-2015 means that there is a natural opportunity to significantly decarbonize the Chinese power sector in the 2035-2045 window at the end of the design life of these facilities. During this window, capital replacement provides an opportunity that might be less likely to confront financial and socio-political “bottlenecks.” Put simply, strategic transition planning around the natural retirement window might provide the most viable rapid switch for the Chinese power sector. There are also examples related to the life cycle of other power generation assets, as well as in transportation (e.g., electric vehicles) and consumer supply chains (e.g., personal electronics). Moreover, there are transition time scales associated with policy (e.g., mandated phase outs of coal in Europe) or economic inflections (e.g., shale gas boom in the United States).
Using quantitative datasets from the United States, Europe, China, and India, this research explores strategic windows of opportunity wherein significant shifts in infrastructure are possible: what are the most viable time frames in which a country could rapidly switch to more sustainable systems? The answers can help inform actionable policy initiatives around the “most viable” energy system transformations.
Anthony Ku, Chris Greig, Eric Larson, and Robert Socolow