INTERVIEW: WEC’s Angela Wilkinson on the need for a ‘messy’ transition

Angela Wilkinson, chief executive of the World Energy Council, says we need to encourage diverse approaches to the energy transition that bring many voices to the table – and we must learn from other energy transitions

Angela Wilkinson WECThe energy transition has to move from ‘top down’ to an inclusive ‘bottom up’ process that allows for many different approaches. That was the message from Angela Wilkinson, chief executive of the World Energy Council (WEC) as the organisation published the latest iteration of its ‘Pulse’ survey. She says the WEC’s ambition “is to have a faster, fairer and more far-reaching energy transition” .
She explains, “I’m very clear that the world energy system is not fit for purpose. I represent the community that is supposed to build – and rebuild – the world energy system to make it fit for purpose. We are the original energy transitions community and we are asking ‘how do we make it happen?’. Everybody is giving us road maps, but there is a big gap between knowing where you want to go and getting there.”
She says that in the most recent Pulse snapshot, published in May, “Everyone is concerned that the pace is going slower … everyone is concerned about affordability, access and acceptability issues.” She say, “bottom-up engagement is really lacking”.
In a recent blog post Wilkinson talked about the transition being ‘messy’ and this chimes with responses to the survey: “We see lots of people talking about faster, we see people talking about fairer – but they use a lot of different vocabularies and it involves a lot of different actors.”
Although they want to go faster, respondents showed a marked lack of interest in multilateral organisations. Wilkinson says, “We talk about the social transformation, not just the technology agenda, and that includes institutional innovation. Everyone is worried that the gap between technology innovation and policy innovation is getting bigger. Policy innovation is moving at a glacial speed. That is partly because the government is still geared towards the 19th century industrial revolution. Now we are in this 21st century next industrial revolution”.
In responding to the Pulse survey, oil and gas companies appeared most confident that investment for the transition would be forthcoming. When I ask Wilkinson later in the conversation how to get them to move faster, she talks about the difference between them and the electricity sector. Any electricity company building a transmission line has to get agreement from multiple communities, she says, and you are in the community. In contrast, “When you are an oil and gas company you have something called a fenceline community and you keep the community out of your business for as long as possible. It has big centralised gas producing and money producing assets where there aren’t any people.” Oil and gas companies “tend to think about inclusivity in terms of workers – not communities – and ask whether they can do a skill transition.”
She talks about companies in the Middle East who are investing a huge amount of their profit into economic diversity, such as new technology like hydrogen, renewables and sustainable aviation fuels. But she thinks oil and gas companies will be eventually be hit by the need to talk about so-called ‘Scope 3’ emissions. That will bring use of their products under examination, rather than the 2% of their emissions that comes from their own activities.

Heading to Net Zero by different routes
Talking about the global direction towards Net Zero, Wilkinson says there is no lack of political will: countries, cities and communities are all heading there, although the target dates depends on local circumstances. But she believes it is time to move on from ‘top down’ roadmaps that “look at where we want to be and then back cast, and say this is the technology we need and this is the money we need. In none of that do we hear about people and communities and users.” She asks, “How do we close the implementation gap if we never hear about solutions? [We need] stories about people and communities, about behaviour changes, and that is what we want to dig into.”
She says there are hundreds of examples from across the world where multiple communities are at the table, and that is making a difference in terms of pace and fairness and depth of transition. “And yet institutionally we still seem to have multilaterals who want to talk to investment bankers and big companies with technologies. I think we have exhausted that.” Now we have to ask, “where is the new enabling eco-ecosystem? That means multiple industries, and multiple communities and the new voices at the table. Where are those bottom-up engagement mechanisms?”

“where is the new enabling eco-ecosystem? That means multiple industries, and multiple communities and the new voices at the table. Where are those bottom-up engagement mechanisms?”

She says taking these differences on board means engaging with a “diffuse and messy” space. “Top down it looks so clean and tidy, but bottom-up [it is not]. I do worry that even in the UK we seem to have implicitly a model that says elites will move first and then we will have trickle-down. We are going to have to do scale through mess.”
She says the ‘trickle down’ model privatises infrastructure. “If you have a solar panel on your roof, and you can charge your car on your drive, and you have a heat pump, the infrastructure is privatised – you own it. If you live in a multi-occupancy set of flats you do not have any of those options. So where are the returns going from this? Where are the benefits?
“If you really want to mobilise the silent majority they want to know what is in it for them”.
I ask how we can ensure the energy transition focuses around the ‘messy’ societies, rather than big new technologies. She says, even for technology “you have to have social pull, which means you have to have skills and capabilities and understanding of the choices. We seem to have individualised the transition, so everybody has to make individual choices and optimise the system for themselves. That is never going to work.” She asks, “Where do you involve communities and what is the community financing,” bearing in mind they are place-based, so the options in Huddersfield are very different than in Cardiff or Oxford.
“We have taken it [the transition] to hyper individualisation but that is not the same as localised,” she says, “there are scaling mechanisms that are not around technology or markets, they are around skills or sharing or demand, or something else around the system”.

Learning lessons of past transitions
When thinking about the current energy transition Wilkinson has a warning from recent decades, when, “we have had previous energy transitions and we don’t seem to be learning from them.”
She explains, “In the coal to gas energy transition in this country we left abandoned communities and stranded workers. That impact – which was only in the 1980s – still influences the politics of today. People have a memory in this country of the last energy transitions, so we are not painting on a blank canvas. But we don’t seem to want to engage with any of that.” Although there are opportunities, “The new jobs will require different skills and a different location.” Wilkinson lives in Oxford and she asks “where is the conversation in Oxford around energy transition and what it means nationally and for the city?”
On the national and international scale the Pulse survey showed clear differences in attitude between different geographies, with African respondents, for example, tending to be more interested in the transition as an economic opportunity. That goes back to Wilkinson’s point about a ‘messy’ transition that takes different forms.
“If you have access to pipes and wires you have different issues. In parts of Asia and India they are still trying to get their energy, so they have an [energy] addition, as well as a transition, to sort out.”

“It is going to be hundreds of and thousands of smaller steps, not one technology moonshot”

Whatever the scale, Wilkinson says there has to be a conversation about the difference between technology price and customer affordability. “The shorthand says that prices are getting cheaper so the affordability is getting better… but affordability is ability to pay, willingness to pay and value in use”.
She says, “We need to hear from more communities and multiple industries, because the energy transition is not made in the energy sector, it is made across the economy.”
We need to understand who are the winners and losers, because “It is going to be hundreds of and thousands of smaller steps, not one technology moonshot”.