One thing that I hadn’t give much thought to prior to undertaking my Churchill Fellowship, but that has popped up a number of times, in a variety of places, is the concept of ‘identity’ and its role in a just and timely transition.

Broadly, there are two key areas where I have encountered it:

Community Identity:

How does a community see itself? As an oil and gas region (like Bakersfield or Aberdeen)? A fishing town (like Peterhead)? A farming town (like many in the Mid West and Wheatbelt of Western Australia)?

The energy transition might seek to superimpose a new identity on some of these places, especially where large-scale renewables projects change both the visual and physical environment, as well as the local economy and employment demographics. This is where the coexistence of existing sectors with new ones requires serious thought and planning. How do you retain, for example, a primary industry like fishing or agriculture whilst introducing a new one? It is also potentially fraught when transitioning away from one industry – like hydrocarbons – to a new one, like renewables.

Aberdeen has been an interesting case for the latter, as there appears to be a concerted effort underway to make the city an ‘energy’ hub, rather than the traditional ‘oil and gas’ hub that it would have been. Certainly those working in local government and economic development are actively promoting this narrative. I didn’t have the chance to do any work to see how it was catching on in the general populace – but at a fundamental level can see that a community might be more accepting of new/clean/green energy projects if they see those projects as compatibility with their identity, rather than in conflict with it.

Again, I haven’t spent a lot of time on how that could be done successfully, but certainly having leadership that support and promote that vision and – ideally – having the community engaged and sharing said vision are good places to start.

Individual Identity

The other aspect of this site more in the skills and training space, and that comes down to individual identity: How a person sees themselves. I believe this will have an impact on the likelihood that someone will decide to re-skill to join the renewable energy sector which – particularly for places trying to phase out of fossil fuels and into renewables – is going to be key.

There has been a reasonable amount of time and effort given to the idea that oil and gas (or coal) workers who are finding their employment threatened will happily and willingly learn some new skills and join the new/clean/green energy economy. Quite often this work doesn’t consider things like the fact that:

  • With aging workforces, some of this workforce will have their identity strongly tied up with their work. Someone who has spent 20-30 years in an industry might sooner relocate to stay in their current industry, rather than stay put and retrain.
  • In some places, this personal identity is generational (i.e. parents or even grandparents worked in oil and gas/farming/fishing) which entrenches this thinking even further
    • This ties in a bit with the community identity, and I have had people suggest that the transition for Aberdeen will be easier for Bakersfield along this metric, in part, because the history with the hydrocarbon sector is only ~60 years, as opposed to >100.
  • The type of work is also changing; there isn’t necessarily equivalency between existing and new roles. Whether this be additional use of technology as opposed to hands-on technical skills, or an increase in remote rather than site-based work, this will also view how people see their roles – and themselves.

Perhaps where it will be advantageous though, is the emerging evidence that young people (the future workforce) are less attracted to the fossil fuel sector and more attracted to renewables and decarbonisation as they see this better aligned with their values (this article introduced me to the concept of ‘climate quitting’).

Whilst the above is probably good news for the emerging clean/green energy sector, people working in decommissioning have commented that this might present a future challenge, as there will be a considerable workforce required to help dismantle and recycle the equipment behind the fossil fuel sector.

At its core though, the identity conversation is another overlay in the energy transition workforce/skills discussion that adds some necessary nuance to the idea that X number of ‘obsolete’ jobs in a comparable sector will necessarily mean that a figure close to X can be transitioned to a green job. (Notwithstanding the timing issues that I also discussed in this blog post.)

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