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Opinion: COVID opened the door to new energy thinking. We haven’t stepped through it

If a pandemic isn’t enough to accelerate the energy transition, then what is?

Our energy production systems are vulnerable to shocks. Energy demand radically shifted early in the Covid-19 pandemic while global oil prices plummeted. The Texas super storm shut down much of the state’s electrical grid in 2021.

Clockwise from top left: Tanya Heikkila, Christopher Weible, Amy Pickle, and Alex Osei-Kojo

These shocks, at least in theory, present opportunities to restructure current energy production systems, invest in energy transitions to mitigate climate change, and strengthen capacity for energy system resilience.  

Arguably, the Covid-19 pandemic might have prompted learning about how we govern and structure our energy production systems across different sectors and how we might strengthen their resilience into the future. Instead,we find more obstinance than openness to change.

During the first year of the pandemic, we examined the ways different stakeholders involved in energy production and governance — specifically in the oil and gas, wind, and solar sectors — thought about, and responded to, the global pandemic, both within their organizations and across each of these three sectors.

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We interviewed energy producers, nonprofits involved in energy advocacy, and regulators, in Colorado, and reached out to similar stakeholders in New Mexico and Texas for comparison.

Despite some subtle differences across the sectors and states, few stakeholders saw the crisis as an opportunity for fundamental change. Instead, most minimized the pandemic’s impacts on energy production.

For example, those favoring renewables felt that the ongoing expansion of renewables was a sign that the energy transition is working, with no need for further changes. Those working in the oil and gas sector felt that they could weather the pandemic successfully, especially with their experience as a boom-and-bust industry.

Although crises sometimes spur innovation and change in society, the pandemic appeared not to have changed the ways of thinking, governing, and operating of the energy sectors we studied. 

Instead, the main lessons were associated with real-time, operational-level adaptation to allow employees to work safely — such as moving meetings online or establishing new health protocols in the field. As one of our interviewees mentioned, “business has just moved forward, we have not stopped in any way and in some ways, I think we’ve seen efficiencies, if anything.”

Similarly, one industry stakeholder noted: “It’s just getting through this coronavirus, which is the issue, and keeping as many people as employed as possible during that time.” 

Entrenchment to the status quo in response to shocks is perhaps not a surprise. Standard operating procedures, policies, and planning were already baked into the system. And arguably, figuring out how to maintain that system is a form of resilience.

However, while we want our energy production sector to endure shocks and crises, resilience also blocks innovative thinking in a time that requires more accelerated transitions in our energy production systems. If a shock of this magnitude doesn’t catalyze new approaches or accelerate the ongoing energy transition, then what will?

Fundamentally, we need to institutionalize the urgency and capacity for rapid energy transitions into energy governance and production systems. Unfortunately, no single approach will move us in that direction, but some tried-and-tested options exist.

These include increasing the flow of information, particularly from the marginalized and rare voices. A few people we interviewed underscored the need for more holistic energy planning and policy to better connect production planning to electricity grid planning; incentivize research and development of cleaner energy production; ensure adequate government resources during times of budget constraints to enforce regulations; build better partnerships with communities where energy development is occurring; and pay more attention to energy inequalities and environmental justice.

Of course, listening to these voices is never enough. We need to re-design our institutions and organizations to allow these voices to join the public discourses and debates. Doing so can foster more intentional and diverse forms of learning from crises and help interrogate the appropriateness of current policies and standard operating procedures in light of a rapidly changing future.

According to one of our interviewees: “If we don’t get everybody talking on the same page and using an experience like Covid as a case study to see why this is so important, then we’ll just have these little pockets of thinking that don’t all line up that actually drive up action.”

We know that shocks don’t always lead to innovation. In fact, they often lead us to resist change or reinforce the status quo. Our research on state-level energy production systems during the Covid-19 pandemic reinforced that lesson.

However, we can’t wait until the next shock to test this hypothesis again. As one energy stakeholder who participated in our study stated: “I think if anything this pandemic has taught is just – you better get things in order, you better plan ahead, and you better be ready for anything and, and that all goes towards resiliency.”


Tanya Heikkila and Christopher Weible, of Denver, are professors at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. Alex Ose-Kojo, of Knoxville, Tenn., is a former PhD student at CU Denver and now Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee. Amy Pickle, of Durham, N.C., is the Director of State Policy Programs at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


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