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By Jennifer Warren on Oct 3, 2013 with no responses

Stepping Back from the Edges of Energy Opposites

A Rational Middle in Energy Futures

I recently spoke with director Gregory Kallenberg of the energy documentary film series, the “Rational Middle.” In their second round of energy education and outreach, Kallenberg and team address the topics of renewables, shale gas, conservation and transportation, and many others. From the short films, roughly ten to fifteen minutes each, I viewed the renewables, shale gas, and drilling features. They were well done and I intend to view more time permitted, particularly the “days in the life of” and Canada films.

What is useful —whatever part of the energy spectrum one falls into—is the exercise of being open and willing to listen to the arguments. The mere act of spending the time listening to the multiple perspectives offered was an exercise in finding one’s own middle. Hats off to the gesture, both simple and yet complicated, of finding and presenting the middle. The films feature some good academic and think tank-type commentary, of the ones I viewed.

The other accolade offered to the series is its first-of-a-kind attempt to use the web and supporting social media tools to reach a wide audience. Shell funded the efforts, but Kallenberg and film crew had editorial license, within the bounds of being factual. Fact checking was performed independently, according to Kallenberg. He says that they stayed true to their message, and let it resound throughout the entire series. The information is a presented in a cool, contemporary venue online. “We wanted to make this a high-quality production, with a cinematic feel.” They scored the films with the New Orleans symphony, and used HD-quality.

“When you are thinking about creating an energy future, you have to think about limited resources, sustainability, affordability and that which is environmentally sound,” offers Kallenberg. “With the Rational Middle, we are trying to create a venue where we show people how important energy is to them.” The grouping of films attempts to define what the main sources of energy are, how they are used, costs/benefits, and what the path ahead looks like. The Rational Middle series was created because the two opposite ends of the energy spectrum (imagine them here) have a hard time communicating. He believes that the folks who sit at this ‘imaginary table’ in the middle, come with their sensibilities, so that compromise can happen and we can move forward to solutions. This requires open dialogue and true listening.

In viewing the renewables and shale gas films, the two major energy portfolio changes of the first decade of the 21st century, the idea emerges that how we use and extend the capacities of these energy sources is fraught with decisions. Government policies have helped encourage the development of both types of energy sources, and the private sector has responded and evolved the development, production and facilitation of their uses.

A few key points from the viewed films follow:

Renewables

  • Renewables — hydropower, wind, solar, and biomass — continue to have continuous year on year growth. Wind is the furthest along as a portion of renewables (excluding hydropower).
  • Solar costs keep falling because of global competition.
  • Issues exist with integrating renewables into utility systems.
  • Storage capacity considered the holy grail challenge for renewables.
  • The infrastructure to support transmission and distribution of renewables is complicated.
  • Trends include the building of utility-scale, but more distributed renewable power generation will save money by being closer to demand.
  • Overall conclusion was that we are not on track to reach sustainable goals of 80% renewables by 2050.

 On shale gas and drilling

  • Natural gas may displace the advancement of renewables and make new nuclear energy plants less attractive on the economic front in the short term.
  • Thus, shale gas may breed complacency on long-term sustainability or lower carbon goals.
  • A main risk on the drilling front is community risk, eg., local infrastructure distress like roads and water supply.
  • Some states, like Texas, are advancing regulations for disclosure of liquids in drilling.
  • Places where best practices are used should be modeled after; environmental footprint of drilling continues to improve.
  • A message of advocating a transparent, robust dialogue on drilling is needed for public buy in.

This dance between a cleaner energy future and the sensible use of fossil fuels will be ongoing for decades. Pragmatism in both may lead to a middle ground. And yet decisions, led by practical and sustainable principles are imperative. In energy, end users are often driven by their pocketbooks but are increasingly caring about using resources sustainably. Energy producers are driven by the ability to make profit, but increasingly with the people and planet motif in mind as well. There are many more finding the middle than ever.