Synthesizing Energy Transitions

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
CitationVol. 39 No. 4
Publication year2023

Synthesizing Energy Transitions

Nadia Ahmad

Uma Outka

Danielle Stokes

Hannah Wiseman

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SYNTHESIZING ENERGY TRANSITIONS


Nadia Ahmad, Uma Outka, Danielle Stokes & Hannah Wiseman*


Abstract

This Article assesses the growing and cross-disciplinary literature on energy transitions to explore how it can guide law and policy reforms for the energy sector. The modern conception of energy transition centers primarily on clean energy—a shift away from fossil energy dependence. It also, however, incorporates equity as a core principle, as an increasing emphasis on energy justice and just transition seeks to create guiding norms for the energy sector's current state of change. The concept of energy transition is critical for describing and giving meaning to a fundamental societal shift at the local, regional, national, and global scales, aligned with the overarching goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. The energy sector, being among the most significant contributors to global climate change, is not only essential to social and economic functionality and stability broadly but also intimately embedded in everyday life. Accordingly, various disciplines bring different emphases to understandings of transition in the energy context. Our synthesis of

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this wide-ranging literature demonstrates how the conceptual development of energy transitions across disciplines may enrich the application and depth of this concept in United States policy reform—particularly reforms designed to substantially increase investments in low-carbon energy sources, such as those enacted, for example, by federal legislation in 2021 and 2022.

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CONTENTS

Introduction...............................................................................1090

I. Disciplinary and Cross-Disciplinary Understandings of the Energy Transition.......................................................1092

A. Technological Change.....................................................1097
B. Financing, Innovation, and Industrial Change...............1100
C. Land Use Implications/Land Use and Siting...................1101
D. Economic and Social Impacts: Workers.........................1105
E. Economic and Social Impacts: Communities..................1108
F. Health Impacts.................................................................1110
G. International Approaches to the Energy Transition.......1112

II. Incorporating Cross-Disciplinary Principles into Energy Transition Law and Policy...............................................1118

A. A Lack of Comprehensive Energy Transition Legislation ..........................................................................................1119
B. Enhancing Opportunities for Equity in the Formation of Low-Carbon Industries....................................................1120
1. Access to Funding Opportunities...............................1122
2. Business Model Optimization.....................................1124
3. Partnerships and Cross-Sector Collaborations.........1125

Conclusion..................................................................................1126

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Introduction

The world is in the process of far-reaching energy transitions as public policy and market forces increasingly shift the energy sector toward cleaner energy resources. What might be broadly conceived as a global clean energy transition is instead many multi-faceted and multi-contextual energy transitions combining to affect this ongoing and accelerating change, aligned with international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with increasing ambition.1

The idea of "just transition" is rightly becoming a central concept for this transformative moment in the energy sector worldwide.2 In the United States, the electric power sector has been steadily reducing reliance on coal, with renewable energy now supplying over 20% of electricity.3 Globally, renewable energy comprised almost 29% of electricity in 2020, which was an increase from 27% in 2019.4 These changes have impact beyond what the trend lines and pie charts tell us about energy transitions. From new infrastructure to retiring infrastructure, from burgeoning industries to waning industries, energy transitions affect individuals, communities, economies, and landscapes.

At its most basic level, just transition invokes a recognition that even transitions that are clearly beneficial in many respects and for many communities may create new or exacerbate existing inequalities and injustice in others.5 Although the idea of just transition originated and extends beyond energy, policymakers, activists, and scholars across a

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range of disciplines are working to give meaning and practical import to the concept of just energy transition so that they might tangibly shape the direction of change for a sector that is essential to global climate change mitigation.6

As might be expected, the concept is not uniformly defined across disciplines, and our review of the cross-disciplinary literature suggests there are strengths in this diversity that can be harnessed toward effective reform. With that in mind, the aim of this Article is two-fold: first, to synthesize key conceptual points of emphasis from the cross-disciplinary literature on just transition, with a primary focus on the energy sector, and second, to translate that diversity to enrich the depth and application of this concept within U.S. energy policy reform.

Part I provides a cross-disciplinary literature review, not just to recount what has been said but to trace and synthesize key conceptual points of emphasis and differences that highlight how the diversity of thought in this space offers a sum greater than its parts. As the literature continues to expand, we cannot claim to have read exhaustively in every discipline, especially as new contributions continue to be made. Rather, our aim was to read widely and deeply enough to expand our own thinking on the topic as legal scholars approaching energy transitions from common yet distinct vantage points and to evaluate prospects for fruitful synthesis.

Part II draws from this review to interpret and synthesize conceptions of energy transitions in a way that can tangibly inform law and policy. This Part briefly explores how modern policy regimes—particularly in the area of supporting and financing low-carbon U.S. energy strategies—can begin to incorporate cross-disciplinary energy transition principles from numerous substantive areas. Lessons from the literature can inform policies designed to hasten the energy transitions to better account for past inequities; to harness and expand the co-benefits of low-carbon technologies, such as reducing energy

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burdens, energy poverty, and exposure to conventional air pollutants; and to avoid perpetuating the inequities of the fossil fuel-based energy system in the low-carbon energy build-out.

With integrated, cross-disciplinary lessons in hand, the law and policy currently shaping energy transitions might better achieve just transitions for communities already experiencing dramatic changes to the physical and regulatory landscapes in the energy sector firsthand.

I. Disciplinary and Cross-Disciplinary Understandings of the Energy Transition

An incredibly rich literature on the energy transition—and specifically a just energy transition—has emerged in the past decade. This literature defines the transition, contextualizes different geographic manifestations of the transition (to some degree), and explores specific facets of the transition, analyzed here.7

Scholars in numerous disciplines—and working in ways that bridge disciplines—conceptualize the "energy transition" in diverse ways. Many of these conceptualizations overlap; others diverge. The aim of this Part is to highlight how a wide variety of disciplines and literatures, including geography, public policy, economics, health sciences, and political sciences, define and analyze the energy transition as compared to the legal literature. In many cases, the legal literature builds upon lessons from these many disciplines to propose legal and policy fixes to challenges created by the energy transition or ways of better harnessing opportunities presented by the transition.

We highlight different disciplines' approaches within "buckets" of substantive concepts that dominate the energy transition literature. As described in the Introduction, the energy transition is global, involves numerous technologies, and has different meanings for different

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communities. As a result, the range of substantive issues that arise beneath the umbrella concept of energy transition is far-reaching and highly varied. Some communities, previously dominated by fossil fuel development, are experiencing a decline in this development—or, in some places, a rise in such development as countries aim to export more fuel to nations that remain dependent on fossil fuels, at least in the short term.8 Other communities now host more production of crops for biomass energy or new energy development in the form of solar, wind, or other renewables.9 Still others have encountered more—and often unsustainable—mining for "energy minerals" needed for solar panels and batteries.10

The energy transition also has different meanings for different groups of people. Individuals, even whole communities, that have been historically well-represented in the fossil fuel industry may experience economic losses if not supported by their employers or government.11 In contrast, other groups historically underrepresented in the energy workforce may experience a growth in job opportunities, contingent on the mandates and incentives that accompany the growth of low-carbon energy sources.12 Some groups of people will also benefit more from low-carbon energy sources than others depending on access,

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