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Page added on September 28, 2013

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What Does an ‘Energy Transition’ Look Like?

What Does an ‘Energy Transition’ Look Like? thumbnail

Everyone who works on energy futures – myself included – spends a great deal of time envisioning and then evaluating the scientific, technical, policy, and behavioral factors needed to initiate and sustain these shifts.

We recently completed a study of what it would take in western North America to expand the deployment of solar power from its current level of less than 1 percent of electricity to one third of total electricity supply by 2050. In an earlier study, we examined what it would take on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua to develop a sustainable renewable-energy dominated energy grid for several rural communities.  In yet another project, we examined the ability for the Malaysian state of Sabah to choose a low-carbon path instead of a coal-dominated future.

At the national, regional, and global level, energy transitions are all the rage.  The European Climate Foundation has released studies of entirely decarbonizing the European Union by 2050, while my laboratory has examined complete and near-complete decarbonization pathways for western North America, China, and Chile by 2050.  And the Trottier Foundation has compiled a wonderful report on low- and zero-carbon futures at the national level.

These studies are vital to understand the opportunities, barriers, and the costs as well as benefits of pushing for these major changes in our energy system. These studies typically look forward to 2020, 2030, or 2050.

But what do these transitions look like on the ground?

Earlier this week I saw a transition, and, well, it was pretty.

I was speaking at a conference on corporate social responsibility near Karup, Denmark.

A billboard highlights a corporate social responsibility conference and awards meeting in Denmark. (Photograph courtesy Dan Kammen)

A billboard highlights a corporate social responsibility conference and awards meeting in Denmark. (Photograph courtesy Dan Kammen)

Following the meeting, I needed to fly to a meeting of Arctic experts in London sponsored by National Geographic and Shell as part of the Great Energy Challenge. To get there I flew out of Billund, in southern Denmark, 90 kilometers (55 miles) away.

To get to Billund, we drove in a Tesla S-class sedan, and spent the drive not just marveling at the range and performance of this particular electric vehicle, but also the myriad of new electric cars on the market, from Coda, BYD, Fisker, and also from older automakers such as Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, Renault, and others.

We marveled over the incredible electronic display in the car where the web interface is so good that stopping the car to check email, surf the web, even work on projects online is a very real option today.

The Tesla S-class sedan is the test car for a new company, tuxi, that will provide zero-emission vehicle rentals for members of collectives that adopt low-carbon practices as part of an overall lifestyle change.

The Tesla S-class sedan is the test car for a new company, tuxi, that will provide zero-emission vehicle rentals for members of collectives that adopt low-carbon practices as part of an overall lifestyle change.

The Tesla's display shows route and restaurant options on the trip ahead.

The Tesla’s display shows route and restaurant options on the trip ahead.

The many business options for low-carbon transport as part of healthy, low-carbon lifestyles was a great start in looking at how the cleantech sector can create jobs.

Along the way we passed the Siemens plant where wind-turbines are being manufactured for off-shore farms. Below is a shot of the wind turbine plant, and the windmill installed there to power parts of the facility, taken through the window of the EV we were driving.

View of the Siemens plant where large wind turbines for offshore deployment are manufactured in southern Denmark.

View of the Siemens plant where large wind turbines for offshore deployment are manufactured in southern Denmark.

Finally, flying from Billund to London City airport, we passed over the new London off-shore wind farm.

“This is a great day for Britain and a big win for renewable energy,” U.K. Prime Minister Cameron said at the opening ceremony of the wind farm this past July. “The London Array shows you can build large-scale renewable energy projects right here in Britain. This is because when it comes to clean energy, the U.K. has one of the clearest investment climates globally.”

The project is owned by Denmark’s DONG Energy, Germany’s E.ON and the Masdar Group of Abu Dhabi. The farm has a capacity of 630 megawatts, enough to power 470,000 homes, and has been fully operational since April. The consortium predicts that the wind farm will save 925,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

All in all it was a day of travel witnessing, and fuelled by, the use and construction of the clean energy economy.

Now, we need those low-carbon airline fuels, and even better, an improved capacity to travel virtually to meetings, cutting our resource footprints and improving services still further.

This trip highlighted to me the reality of dramatic energy transitions.  What energy transitions—clean and not so clean—are you seeing around you today?

Nat Geo



7 Comments on "What Does an ‘Energy Transition’ Look Like?"

  1. J-Gav on Sat, 28th Sep 2013 2:50 pm 

    Once you cut through the hype and fluff (ie how this trip “highlighted … the reality of dramatic energy transitions,” in the author’s words), we’re left with the minor detail, briefly mentioned in the 2nd paragraph, that solar is presently still at less than 1% of total electricity in North America.

    By all means, let’s build out solar while we can, but maybe we should refrain from presenting it as some kind of cure-all.

  2. GregT on Sat, 28th Sep 2013 5:42 pm 

    “All in all it was a day of travel witnessing, and fuelled by, the use and construction of the clean energy economy.”

    In reality, it was a day of travel witnessing, and fuelled by, the use and construction of the clean energy economy, that was designed, and built with, fossil fuels.

    The author clearly cannot see the forest through the trees.

    I completely agree J-Gav, by all means we should be using our remaining fossil fuels to build out alternate energy infrastructure, but the future hinted at in this article, is by no means realistic.

  3. Kenz300 on Sat, 28th Sep 2013 7:02 pm 

    Alternative energy sources are cheaper, cleaner and safer than fossil fuels. Especially if you add in the cost of the environmental damage.

    50% Reduction In Cost Of Renewable Energy Since 2008  

    http://peakoil.com/alternative-energy/50-reduction-in-cost-of-renewable-energy-since-2008

  4. action on Sat, 28th Sep 2013 9:31 pm 

    Flying around the world and riding in sports cars to an event sponsored by Shell none the less… the phrase ‘practice what you preach’ comes to mind.

  5. BillT on Sun, 29th Sep 2013 2:34 am 

    Keep in mind that in the Techie Religion, there is no direction but forward into their George Jetson world.

    This is a fluff piece by techies, for techies. The idea that there is a ‘transition’ to a clean future, still underpinned by oil, is not realistic. Every barrel used to build solar or wind or the other extenders has to be taken from some other source and since most oil is used for transport… Not going to happen.

    2020 and North America will maybe have 1 1/2% energy from ‘clean’ transition sources. Or not.

    Transition is not in the forward direction, but in the reverse direction. Transitioning form the high tech society of the West to a society where tech is only that needed to survive. An educated 18th century with understanding of virus and germs, maybe. But even that will be lost when the internet does as there are few printed books on most of that stuff and those are printed on paper that will quickly disintegrate.

  6. GregT on Sun, 29th Sep 2013 7:35 am 

    “Transition is not in the forward direction, but in the reverse direction. ”

    Exactly.

    Everything, that we have ‘evolved’, since we learned how to make more efficient and hotter ‘fires’, will slowly dissapear as the source for those ‘fires’ runs out.

    There are many that believe that we are in the ‘nuclear age’, but the nuclear age is in of itself, a result of our burning fossil fuels. No fossil fuels, no nuclear. The same is true for electric power generation.

    The truth of the matter is, we are still in the ‘fire age’. We just happened to keep finding things that released more energy when we burned them. As the EROEI of fossil fuels continues to decline, so will our societies, and so will our populations.

  7. Stilgar on Sun, 29th Sep 2013 10:45 am 

    “As the EROEI of fossil fuels continues to decline, so will our societies, and so will our populations.”

    That’s what is hard to get away from. High tech oil extending renewables are the product of complexity. Getting to the point where all energy including the energy to make renewables that would come from renewables, is far past the economic disaster that awaits as FF EROEI descends.

    We’ve been floating along the peak of conventional oil production since 05, with all oil still rising, and even still growth is minimal with borrowing and printing bucks just to eek out minimal growth. And while this is going on the complexity still exists to produce hi-tech renewables.

    Once the 2nd major economic step down occurs like it did in 08/09, the price of oil will drop into the 50-70 a barrel range with many sources of unconventional no longer being profitable, in turn reducing supply. That will probably be the beginning of the drop from peak oil. As complexity withers so will the supply chains and capital sources for renewables.

    Once complexity begins transitioning into simplicity, hi-tech will become low tech. Guess what that does not include.

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