A History of Energy and Societal Scenarios for a World in Transition: Fifty Years of Personal Experience with Shell and Other Organisations


A History of Energy and Societal Scenarios for a World in Transition: Fifty Years of Personal Experience with Shell and Other Organisations

Michael Jefferson
ESCP Business School, London Campus, 527 Finchley Road, London NW3 7BG, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 


No-one can foresee the future with certainty. However, the development and use of alternative scenarios can help to highlight opportunities and challenges, greater or lesser realism, physical and technological options and barriers, and compatibility with other goals of sustainable development. Imagining and assessing relevant scenario elements ideally requires putting together small multidisciplinary and multi-talented teams.

Over the past fifty years Shell’s scenario work has envisaged energy transition – in 1971 towards greater reliance on nuclear and coal, from 1973 in response to ecological concerns, and from 1974 exploitation of solar energy resources as the single most promising ‘new’ renewable source. Hydro and hydrogen also got a mention. By 1977 particular emphasis was being placed on solar PV, while enthusiasm for coal was waning by 1975 and support for nuclear more equivocal by 1976 and withdrawn by Shell in 1978 due to the long lead times involved. In the 1977 scenario books wind, wave, ocean thermal, and biomass sources were also considered. Then in April 1986 a study of “The Greenhouse Effect” was first issued. The need to balance growing environmental concerns while providing energy services to meet increasing world demand became a growing concern.

From this concern flowed support for the rapid expansion of the availability and use of renewable forms of energy in some quarters, but scepticism in others – reflected in the scenario books issued in 1975 and 1976. This apparent scepticism reflected concerns about ‘new’ renewable forms of energy being insufficiently effective due to their low power density and issues of intermittency and needed storage, rather than opposition to transition in principle, despite likely impacts on oil demand. Interest in investigating the potential of the main forms of renewable energy and their scope for energy transition continued.

Here is considered the relevance of past scenarios, particularly those produced by Shell, but also the World Energy Council, UNDP, the IPCC, and others with which the author has had an involvement over the past fifty years. A list of scenario reports, related publications, and suggestions on what knowledge and skills are likely to be helpful for those involved with energy scenarios, are provided in the Annexes. It is concluded that seeking to consider a wide range of possible opportunities and threats incorporated into alternative scenarios should be of great value for individuals, business corporations and society. However, the history of the use of past scenarios is mixed: there are examples where signals were heeded, and others where they have not been – yet.


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