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The Energy Debate: Technology and Society

Guest article

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The fossil fuel-based source of energy has been one of the biggest concerns in the climate change debate. Scholars studying social aspects of technology for the choices of the source of energy have always questioned through the lens of its effects on human society in its implementation. Do we need to choose gigantic energy production with limited resources, or should we have small and soft energy pathways for environmentally friendly choices?

One of the realities that differentiate people of the twenty-first century from previous centuries is the technology which post-modern man is using with continuous upgrades day by day. George Basalla (1988), in his book ‘The Evolution of Technology’, defines how technology has evolved according to our necessity and selection from diverse options. The option we chose was determined by the efficiency of technology to satisfy our aspirations. Feenberg’s (2010) paradox of action says that the action of choice over technology made us the object of the action. The technology we chose to improve human life has now threatened our existence, leading this planet towards its sixth mass extinction. The evolution of techn(olog)ical world post the nineteenth century was determined by the control over different forms of energy to convert them into mechanical to fuel industrialism. All other social aspects of technology transfer were ignored, and the focus was to bring gigantic energy-producing sources. Coal and crude oil became the most demanding product in the world, and it is being used intensively today. IPCC reports came up with troublesome figures claiming that human-influenced activities caused the significant increase in global carbon in the atmosphere, resulting in global warming and climate change (IPCC, 2021), where 65% of greenhouse gas emissions come from CO2 produced by fossil fuels and industrial processes (IPCC, 2014).

The use of technology can be interlinked with the energy use debate. Modern tools, machines and devices require various kinds of energy to function. Thermal and electricity account for a significant part of energy requirements which are, for the most part, supplied by fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, classified as non-renewable sources of energy, are not only limited in their availability but also come with a huge cost to the natural environment and welfare. There have been discussions on alternatives to non-renewable sources of energy in the form of renewable energy sources since the mid-twentieth century. The appropriate technology movement has always criticized such disruptive sources and demanded energy initiatives that are more socially viable, decentralized and independent (Pursell, 1993). After the energy crisis of 1973, different scholars such as E R Schumacher and Amory Lovins questioned the ways of global economists and politicians and termed them unsustainable, demanding appropriate sustainable choices. Lovins, an American energy policy analyst, wrote a book “Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable Peace” where he proposed the alternative, which he called “the soft path,” favouring “benign” sources of renewable energy like wind power and solar power, along with commitments to energy efficiency and conservation (Lovins, 1979).

Despite such early assumptions and warnings, we continued with the fossil fuel economy, causing irreversible harm to our planet. Now, we have two big challenges, one is our high non-renewable-based energy demand, and the other is the rising carbon concentration in our atmosphere, which is linked to the first one. Unfortunately, despite knowing that the high non-renewable-based energy consumption is threatening, we can’t regulate it. J. A. Chandler (2012) explains the state of dependency as 'Obligatory Technologies', where people in common have no choice but to use a set of technologies if they want to remain in the competition of living well. The other obligations are defined by Hospers (2004) as lock-in situations in terms of economic mono-structure, political will & cognitive beliefs of people in the conventional energy sector that have made the system rigid to bring the change as sooner as it is needed.

Looking toward a peaceful existence of life on earth, we have to mitigate climate change. Now, this takes us to the discussion of our choices, which are determined by necessity. Minimizing carbon emissions, regulating fossil fuels, controlling energy demand, increasing energy efficiency and achieving environmental sustainability are required and necessary for human welfare. Developing technologies that require less energy can be practised through Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) to achieve energy efficiency. The energy sources must be clean and soft, which can be ensured by properly functional energy policies promoting sustainability. The World Energy Council composed world energy scenarios for 2050 and came up with an approach to the energy future with the metaphorical presentation of jazz symphony growth, jazz; economy; that, renewable green, and Symphony pathways. Under it, Jazz is the approach with a focus on energy equity by prioritizing the access and affordability of energy through economic growth, whereas Symphony focuses on achieving environmental sustainability through policies and practices. In a more precise way, we can say that Jazz is business as usual, a slow shift towards sustainability without compromising the economy and contrary to it, Symphony demands a change in energy pathways and policies, achieving environmental sustainability by negotiating with the economy (WEC, 2013). Symphony is expressed as Lovins’ soft energy path that comprises the use of renewables, clean, green and decentralized energy sources.

India is the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gases (GHGs) and, thus, to global warming. India has committed to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to mitigate climate change. The foremost required action to accomplish the commitments is to redefine the ways of energy consumption and sources. The required form of energy has also been changing dominantly towards electricity as the majority of modern technology uses electricity. If produced from cleaner sources, electricity can be a sustainable alternative to conventional energy sources. In India, electricity is produced majorly by coal, followed by hydropower. Recent years have shown a shift towards renewable sources such as solar PV and wind. The future goal of the nation is to move towards renewable energy sources under the guidance of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the Government of India, and make India carbon neutral before 2070.

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Here again, comes the role of technology and technology transfer that will construct the future of human society. The analysis of a report about the nation’s planned efforts for climate change mitigation and adaptation submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat says that approx. 75 per cent of all and 95 per cent of developing countries mentioned technology in the context of R&D and innovation to support NDCs (UNFCCC, 2016).

Technology is not only a set of tools but also has its sociological structure that defines its practical consequences. The absence of studies in the sociology of technology has failed technological transfer in society (Trevor J. Pinch, 2012). While defining new electricity sources, we should remember our mistakes and rectify our new energy policies. Unfortunately, it has been ignored again. The national plan of going renewable by making significant and centralized plans such as dams, PV solar plants and windmills has been a mainstream policy initiative. Such centralized and large energy infrastructure has frequently caused tragic environmental and social consequences. Instead, the national policy should focus on small decentralized renewable energy sources in the country. Central Electricity Authority notes that 22 per cent of generated electricity is lost in transmission and distribution. Providing sufficient energy to every remote village in the country through a centralized system is another challenge. Such a strategy is assumed to be more appropriate because it is more affordable and viable to local communities, it can be facilitated and managed by local villagers, and it is more environmentally friendly as it is based on locally available resources (Yamaguchi, 2003).

With such a theory of decentralised renewable electricity, rooftop PV solar emerges as an alternative. India lies in the subtropical region, and according to a study by TERI (2014), it receives an ample amount of solar radiation throughout the year, which makes it a country with a solar rooftop potential of 124 Gigawatts. In recent years, rooftop solar has shown itself to be a promising energy source as it's a cost-effective, efficient, clean and decentralized alternative giving an opportunity of generating prosumers. The government of India came up with a goal of a 40 GW solar rooftop to be set by 2022. Various sets of technology transfer mechanisms and business models that have experimented with it could only achieve 3.3 GW as of October 2020. The government has again initiated the second phase of the program with new funding strategies and policies.

Solar rooftop is an appreciable effort and seems an appropriate technology in general. Being socially viable, environmentally friendly, and rarely criticized by people, the program could never achieve popularity in general. Very slow progress for such a policy appears demotivating and raises a lot of questions in mind. Success defines efficiency, which still remains an aspiration for the plan. The causal facts behind the project's failure to take off can be traced to a lack of awareness and trust deficiency which has not been ensured. The reach of the project remained restricted to a very small number. The choice of technology is regulated and influenced by the market owners, which continues in capital-intensive ways. The mainstream efforts are continued to subsidise and advertise other big energy alternatives such as gigawatt solar plants, hydro projects and windmills. There are still no fiscal policies for fossil fuels to demote people’s choices and a consumer-centric approach for new renewable energy sources such as rooftop PV solar. Such technologies require much more attention than is being given. This energy choice is exceptional because it makes the consumer an independent and self-sustaining entity, which has also been the best approach to facing modern socio-environmental problems. Many people still fail to recognize the social aspects of technology transfer that keep them away from socially viable choices. Politicians, policymakers, institutions and organizations must realize the social construction of technology, prioritize the people-centric, decentralized, soft energy pathway and promote them, leading us to achieve the NDCs and the idea of Atma Nirbhar (self-dependent) economy of a sustainable world.


By Rachit Tiwari (Guest Writer)