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Shifting the paradigm

Friday 6 September 2019

Dr Steven Fawkes

For anyone wanting to understand how the world changes Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts, as put forward in his 1962 book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, is essential reading, even though it was originally applied to shifts in scientific thinking it is applicable far beyond science.

In its entry on Kuhn, the Encyclopaedia Britannica explains his concept:

“Scientific research and thought are defined by ‘paradigms’, or conceptual world-views, that consist of formal theories, classic experiments, and trusted methods. 

“Scientists typically accept a prevailing paradigm and try to extend its scope by refining theories, explaining puzzling data, and establishing more precise measures of standards and phenomena. Eventually, however, their efforts may generate insoluble theoretical problems or experimental anomalies that expose a paradigm’s inadequacies or contradict it altogether. 

“This accumulation of difficulties triggers a crisis that can only be resolved by an intellectual revolution that replaces an old paradigm with a new one. The overthrow of Ptolemaic cosmology by Copernican heliocentrism, and the displacement of Newtonian mechanics by quantum physics and general relativity, are both examples of major paradigm shifts.”

In short the concept says that things change in paradigm shifts rather then gradually. In the period that Kuhn called ‘normal science’, everything looks fine. Then cracks appear when some evidence arrives that things are not quite how they appear to be.  In that phase the majority of people who are attached to the paradigm resist, rubbishing the people attacking the existing theory.  Over time the weight of evidence builds until the new paradigm emerges and is accepted by the majority.

The idea transformed scientific debate and modeling.

Clearly the world of energy supply has undergone a paradigm shift over the last 10 to 20 years. In the old paradigm renewables were regarded as expensive and only ever to be a small percentage of supply, people who argued otherwise were criticised by the energy establishment for being unrealistic.  Now we are seeing renewables under-cutting fossil fuelled generation and generating a growing proportion of electricity supply.  The defenders of the old paradigm, particularly people like Trump and the coal companies in the US, continue to attack the new paradigm but it is now clear that they are on the wrong side of history.  It is normal during a paradigm shift for the ‘old guard’ to fight hard to defend their view of the world, even as the evidence mounts that it is wrong.  Attacks on those working to shift the paradigm are normal.  Other aspects of the old energy paradigm that are breaking down include; supply reacts to demand, there is a merit order in which generators bring on different supply sources with coal and nuclear delivering ‘base load’, and electricity cannot be stored.

We are also now seeing a shift in thinking about energy efficiency that heralds a paradigm change. The old paradigm was dominated by the idea that efficiency needed encouragement over and above market forces. It was also based on the idea that efficiency projects were developed in non-standard ways and that the measurement of the result was difficult, and that large programmes came with large measurement and verification costs.  In the US a whole industry developed to estimate the results of efficiency programmes.  As specific project measurement was rare the actual results of many projects were unknown.  Furthermore, often when they were measured results were a long way from what was planned, the ‘performance gap’.

In the US the emergence of the new paradigm is being enabled by policy switches to support metered efficiency programmes in which results of investments are measured and payment is based on results, Pay for Performance.  If we are to achieve the real potential of efficiency to reduce emissions, as well as make our use of energy, more productive, policy makers everywhere need to take this approach, despite the resistance of the old guard. 

EnergyPro is looking to work with forward looking energy suppliers, energy service companies, efficiency product companies, or others wanting to explore the new business opportunities the paradigm is creating globally. 

If you are not prepared for the paradigm change, once it happens, you may well be out of business.

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