Beware the clean energy technology ‘hype cyclers’

hype cycle

Hype cyclers pressure governments to enact expensive, ineffective policy to promote adoption of clean energy technologies like EVs

If you spend any time on social media these days, you’re bound to come across a “hype cycler” – or herds of them, depending on your friends and followers – raving about the virtues of electric vehicles or solar power or residential battery storage, etcetera. Don’t believe them, because they are invariably wrong.

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Scatec Solar photo.

Sounds like I’m a clean energy tech hater, doesn’t it?

Not at all.I’m a big fan of new technology and the cleaner, more energy-efficient, sustainable future humankind is building. I loved my test drive (for a Vancouver Magazine assignment) of the BMW i3. Micro-solar generation for my home is definitely in the future, especially when coupled with a cost-effective Tesla PowerWall.

Unfortunately. my interviews with scientists, researchers, economists, and analysts suggest those technologies are still a long way from being competitive with existing energy technologies.

But not to hear the hype cyclers tell the story. For these folks, the future is now. They firmly believe the new technologies are ready for prime time, for mainstream adoption, when in fact they are not.

And that irrational exuberance is dangerous.

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I don’t mean dangerous like being bitten by a snake or run over by a distracted driver. I mean dangerous like passing unrealistic public policy that breaks energy systems – like the power generation and distribution system in Ontario – or wastes taxpayer dollars promoting technologies that just aren’t ready yet – think EVs in California.

Electric vehicles are top of mind these days because of five interviews I recently did with leading American experts on EV battery science. You can read those columns here and here. Let’s use EVs in British Columbia, which bills itself as a global leader in the clean energy transition, as an example of the hype cyclers at work.

BC recently revised its climate leadership plan and took a lot of flak for ignoring a recommendation from its advisory committee (which was loaded up with eco-activist hype cyclers) to emulate California Gov. Jerry Brown’s aggressive EV program that aims to have 1.5 million electric cars on the road by 2025 – and appears primed to fail spectacularly.

Premier Christy Clark could have followed Ontario’s lead and implemented a $12,000 EV subsidy (not even the Obama Administration, which offered $7,500 for an automaker’s first 200,000 EVs, dared go that far). Instead, it appears she will continue with the more modest $5,000 subsidy implemented in 2015.

Clark hopes the Clean Energy Vehicle Program will result in five per cent of BC vehicles being electric or hydrogren-powered by 2020. Not five per cent of annual sales, which in itself would be a prodigious feat, but one-twentieth of the entire provincial light duty vehicle fleet of 3.5 million (figures from Statistics Canada), which would be 175,000 EVs.

hype cyclers
Premier Christy Clark, left, and Environment Minister Mary Polak. Photo: BC Government.

How many EVs were registered in BC as of Sept. 31, 2016? A grand total of 4,698, according to the FleetCarma website.

The numbers just don’t add up. British Columbians currently purchase about 77,000 cars annually, according to Statistics Canada. They would have to buy 42,500 EVs each year from 2017 to 2020, 55 per cent of all light vehicle sales, for the Liberal government to reach its target.

Instead, British Columbians bought about 1,250 in the first nine months of 2016.

Since even with generous subsidies EVs make up far less than one per cent of annual sales, Clark’s target is a joke – and an example of hype cyclers driving policy instead of advisors with real data and a realistic grasp of the technology and its potential market.

hype cycle
Tzeporah Berman, co-chair of the Alberta Oil Sands Advisory Group. Photo: Youtube.

One of Canada’s most prominent hype cyclers is Tzeporah Berman, an adjunct professor at York University and a member of BC’s Climate Leadership Team that provided advice to Premier Clark’s government. She frequently comments publicly about electric vehicles, how EVs will soon be ready to replace internal combustion engine vehicles, and why governments should aggressively promote and subsidize EV adoption.

Political leaders listen to her. She has a sizeable following on social media. And media frequently seek her comment on news stories.

How do you recognize hype cyclers like Berman?

hype cycler
Source: Gartner.

The idea of the hype cycle belongs to consulting firm Gartner Research. The model has been criticized because Gartner claims too much for its predictive powers when applied to technology diffusion rates.

But it does have two useful concepts, the Peak of Inflated Expectations and the Trough of Disillusionment.

Inflated expectations occur when hype cyclers latch on to a new technology and promote it for their own reasons, which may be ideology (in Berman’s case) or financial or some other reason. Inflating expectations works. A 2016 survey of American consumers found they thought wind and solar energy will make up 34 per cent of US electricity generation within five years, whereas experts put the figure closer to five per cent.

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“There’s an imbalance between perception and reality with regard to renewable energy’s role in the American energy economy,” said Andy Beck, executive VP of Energy, Manufacturing and Sustainability at consulting firm Makovsky, which undertook the survey.

“Consumers are hearing a lot about the rapid growth of solar and wind, but perception will not start to become reality until after 2025—the projected peak year for coal, gas and oil.”

Inflated expectations may be fine for hype cyclers like Berman who are trying to drive social change or renewable energy companies trying to boost sales of solar panels or wind turbines, but they make a poor basis for public policy decisions.

Why? Because eventually the new technology fails to deliver – during the trough of disillusionment, according to Gartner.

Then governments – as well as voters and taxpayers – have to pay the political and financial cost of failed policy.

Christy Clark and her Liberal government inflated expectations about EV adoption in British Columbia. That policy is headed over a cliff. Yet hype cyclers like Berman are pressuring Clark to double down on an already failing policy.

Is that sensible? Cost-effective? Likely to have any impact at all on reducing gasoline and diesel consumption in Canada’s third largest province?

Governments in Canada and the United States would be far better off taking a hard-headed approach to EV adoption, doing what is prudent and sensible, and spending public dollars where they will have the greatest impact.

The first step in toward this new approach should be to stop listening to the hype cyclers.

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  1. Another take on electric vehicles and the future of oil (take note Alberta, Texas) - The American Energy News : The American Energy News

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