May 1, 2017

The history of energy change

Facing a transition away from petroleum, its key economic driver, Alberta can reduce the impact by following examples set in other jurisdictions, says one UCalgary researcher.

As oil-rich Alberta considers a future where petroleum no longer powers the world’s economy, Dr. Petra Dolata, PhD, remembers the discussions her family had as coal miners in the 1970s and 80s.

She grew up in what was then the industrial Ruhr region of West Germany, which was beginning to phase out coal as an energy source for heavy industries such as steel. “Some of my generation sympathized with the Green movement,” says Dolata, who is now an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Calgary.  “You were considered a traitor to your region. You were told, ‘Well, no one in your family would have a job with a green economy.’”

Dolata has watched the reaction to Alberta’s recent carbon tax, which aims to reduce emissions by getting everyone from industries to average citizens to alter their energy habits.

“We all know that oil and gas cannot continue to be used for the next hundred years,” she says. “We know decarbonisation will happen, but still, from a day-to-day scenario, we’re just uncomfortable with these sacrifices we have to make.”

As a Canada Research Chair in the History of Energy, Dolata says the transition from one energy system to another is usually complicated and messy. Part of the problem for places like Alberta is that much of the province’s current identity is tied to its oil and gas industry, she says.

 “I think that's where we see the limits of how quickly one can change," Dolata says. "If it becomes part of the culture, it is much more than a job. It’s a way of life. Life without it becomes unthinkable.”

Under Alberta’s prosperous culture of abundant oil and gas, things such as cars have become as much an expression of personal freedom, even democracy, as they have been transportation, says Dolata. “Things like being able to drive anywhere in a car, that is something that, if we go back to the Cold War, is really what defined a free American or a free Canadian.”

Viewed from this angle, it's easy to see why some Albertans seem to instinctively find the phasing out of petroleum to be as much ideologically subversive as it is a threat to their livelihoods, she says. Adding to such resistance is the fact that the current energy transition seems to be shaping up to be different than earlier ones, says Dolata.

The move from steam power fuelled by coal to the petroleum age was accomplished through the centralizing forces of large industries acting on a worldwide scale backed by governments, she says. “Technologies, themselves, are never inevitable,” she says. “There is a lot of business push, societal acceptance and political support involved.”

Past transitions also shifted to more powerful or cheaper forms of energy, such as oil and gas, she says. The move away from petroleum seems likely to be toward a more diffused, decentralized system containing a broad coalition of smaller-scale renewable and unconventional energy sources, says Dolata.

These will likely range from wind and solar power to geothermal energy and biofuels, with the transition prompted by scientific research into long-term climate change – something that can seem so intangible to average people as to be essentially meaningless, she says.

The potential consequences of postponing tough choices can be seen in American cities such as Detroit, whose population dropped from a high of 1.85 million people in 1950 to 701,000 in 2013, the year it declared bankruptcy in the largest such case in U.S. history. Due to the decline of the city’s once world-famous auto industry, Detroit’s urban decay, poverty and crime have made it a byword for the perils of unplanned deindustrialization.

Facing similar consequences for the Ruhr region as it deindustrialized, Germany implemented ambitious measures to soften the blow. These ranged from the Kohlepfennig (“coal penny”) surcharge on German utility bills, creating a fund to cushion the transition from coal, to the founding of universities in the Ruhr in the 1960s.

They were created to diversify the regional economy and to retrain workers for new industries such as electronics and renewable energy, says Dolata, a graduate of Ruhr-Universität Bochum, which is one of these universities.

“A lot of the cities in the Ruhr are still among the most indebted cities in Germany, but in general, one also has the feeling that there are opportunities in every transition,” she says. While Alberta must come up with its own solutions, jurisdictions that are early adopters of new technologies and ways of making a living generally tend to find their niche and reap the most rewards, says Dolata.

But as an historian, she cautions that insights gained from the past do not form a perfect mirror for predicting Alberta’s future. “I don't think history repeats itself,” she says, laughing. “It's rather as Mark Twain is supposed to have said – it rhymes.”

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Dr. Petra Dolata is an associate professor in the Department of History in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her current research interests include European and North American energy history after 1945, as well as the history and politics of the Canadian and circumpolar Arctic. View Petra's publications

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