The world is such a small place, and the more you write – the more people write back.
Paul Hellsegg reached out to me to learn more about the F2F website and projects I’ve been working on. He’s an artist who currently lives in Norway. I’ve always wanted to visit Norway, am fascinated by their energy systems, am a big fan of the technology Equinor utilizes and has developed. I think they could be a leader in energy development globally. Naturally, I was curious on a local’s opinion about the energy system. Paul wrote back the following email which I’ve edited only lightly for grammatical errors. While he claims the note is merely an opinion piece and not backed up with significant data, I found it to be a compelling narrative.
Thanks a bunch for the note, Paul. Can’t wait to chat about this in person someday soon.
By Paul S. Hellsegg
A succinct way to describe Norway’s relationship to energy today and in our recent past would be Energy Abundance.
Through the damming of almost every available waterway in the past century – and we have a lot of brisk waterways in this rugged, mountainous land – industry and private citizens have had access to cheap, abundant electricity for decades. It explains why bauxite for aluminum smelting is shipped to us from far away, and why Norwegians are apt to rather flippantly leave the lights on without reason, with our European neighbors staring in disbelief. Until recently, that is.
It also helps to explain how the country has been able to pursue and endorse decentralization of populations and infrastructure, in contrast to all of its neighbors or any modern nation. Where Sweden – our primary neighbor – stimulated centralization during the sixties and seventies and quickly achieved its objectives, Norway did the opposite, and maintains a distributed population through heavily subsidizing farming, expansive infrastructure, and robust social services.
That means this rugged and rustic land can be travelled and lived in with relative ease from tip to toe. I make this point to contrast it to Norway’s neighbors (Finland, Sweden, Russia) where you can travel seemingly endlessly through empty landscapes once you exit the urban centers.
Imagine Alaska with a pharmacy and post office in every small town, and an expensive bridge or tunnel built to ease transportation and travel. Also include well equipped farms north of the Arctic Circle, where, strictly speaking, farming, framed in a contemporary market context, is unconscionable. Only 3% of all land in Norway is arable, and most of it in lies in the south.
This is a unique but costly endeavor, which brings me to the second wave of energy abundance: the discovery of vast reserves of offshore oil and gas in the sixties and the subsequent development of a robust and very profitable offshore fossil fuel sector.
It is important to know as an outsider: Norwegians are very proud of the equitable distribution of wealth that was generated by the nationalization of this sector.
Unlike almost every other major oil producing nation that nationalized this sector, Norway sought and achieved a socialization of the funds generated. Where oil money engendered spectacular instances of corruption and social strife elsewhere, Norway diligently applied itself to spreading that wealth into all sectors of society, whilst building an oil fund that is now one of the world’s biggest national investment funds. Its investment dynamics rests on its political allegiance and accountability to the people of Norway, not to a private board that pursues its investment objectives to suit themselves.
This is no mean feat, and I don’t find this pride to be misplaced or chauvinistic.
The reason I mention this, though, is that in order to understand the intransigence to change and the curious double standards that now abound in this country, one must take this fact into account: the energy sector itself generates vast, evenly distributed wealth, has broad support across the entire political spectrum, and thus prohibits new visions for Norway’s energy future. To rally an energy consensus beyond the oil age seems impossible, implausible, and fraught with inconsistencies.
Let me give you an example. The fossil sector is now electrifying from land its offshore oil and gas platforms (the turbines and power systems currently running on gas from the drilling) at huge cost, with divisive political dogfights tailing it, which Norway does to comply with its international carbon emission reduction obligations. Ponder that for a moment. That we aren’t ridiculed worldwide for this is a constant source of amazement to me. We find ourselves unable to shed what constantly enriches us, and thus we’re unable to focus in on an intelligent course for the future.
The politicians have naturally embarked on the standard narratives of the green transition, but they’ve let the wolf tend the sheep. Equinor, our recently renamed oil company (Statoil) has been tasked with developing the nation’s largest renewables portfolio, and foreign investors are seeking lucrative subsidized contracts to not only deploy renewables but also to own them.
It has been jammed into our ears so often: «the green transition» , «the wind power adventure», that we now seem to take it for granted that this will indeed be the future.
Meanwhile almost all land wind power concessions have been taken off the table due to very vocal public protests, and we are now promised offshore wind power instead. Never mind the protests from the highly important fisheries of Norway, and never mind that they are to be deployed in one the world’s most demanding maritime areas, and never mind that they are shown to be unprofitable both short and long term. A “wind power adventure” it is. Basta.
Which brings me to nuclear, which is the reason we are in correspondence. I am very sympathetic to your ideas. The mere idea that we should disregard an energy source with such a formidable physical potential, I find preposterous. As you rightly point out; the transition from fire to fission is of epic proportions, elegantly formulated by your motto Fire2Fission.
We should consider nuclear in Norway as well. We have highly competent offshore engineering expertise that could and should be stimulated to work in that direction. Moreover, all of our neighbors (with the notable exception of Denmark) have long developed and employed nuclear, and we should engage with them and learn from them. And our purses are very deep.
I am hesitant, however, to fully embrace the micro-reactors you endorse. They threaten to obscure the continued use of legacy nuclear, and have yet to prove themselves in practice.
The biggest concern I have, though, is that a deployment of large numbers of these could complicate measures against nuclear weapons proliferation, or simply raise the spectrum of such an event in the public imagination, which could stall the incipient re-emergence of nuclear on the global scene. Don’t forego what we already have in favor of something that might never materialize. It’ll screw up both scenarios.
I do, however, see a very specific role micro-reactors could play in an introductory phase. They could act as designated power banks placed in ships to electrify areas that have lost power due to accidents and operated under the auspices of an International agency like the UN. Sneak those suckers into the public eye as emergency heroes. But I digress.
Norway is entering into a state of affairs we are unused to. Our public discourse is becoming toxic. The discussion is proving divisive. A hitherto homogenous culture is now tearing at its seams. As it now stands, we are suffering endless battles of where and how this yet to be produced “green” electricity should happen and to which sector of society it should go first. Energy scarcity is on the horizon for the first time in recent history, and Norwegians are in denial. We aren’t even at the beginning of developing a new consensus.
It is not ripe soil you will be seeding your ideas in. No one really agrees on anything, but will gladly endorse – but not commit to – a full scale decarbonization effort.
We find ourselves at a crossroads with social democratic centrist political consensus being the order of the past and now challenged by huge inconsistencies between our aspirations and our actual energy practices. The discourse is both immature and tabloid, awash with half-truths and outright falsehood.
Coming from Colorado you are presumably not unfamiliar with energy newspeak and cognitive dissonances, with Amory Lovins aloof in his nearby mountain institute, issuing his regal edicts and proffering icy condescension to the ignorant masses who refuse to employ them.
Consider this rambling effort a sort of welcome to Norway. I will do my best to answer any question you may have. As you have probably surmised, I am no expert on energy – I am an artist by profession – but am mobilized by my resistance to dystopian de-growth scenarios from the Greens, and the laissez-faire ethics of denial from the rest of them.