What is... The 'Energy Transition'?

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

The term 'Energy Transition' refers to the global shift towards sustainable energy sources from unsustainable sources. The current shift from fossil fuels to renewables is not the first energy transition, however this one is different; historically, shifts in our energy system have been driven by demand for certain fuels and the availability of those fuels. The current energy transition is instead driven by the recognition that we need to reduce global carbon emissions in an attempt to combat climate change. The modern energy transition is being driven by government policy, falling costs associated with renewable technology and social support internationally.

Why do we need to transition?

In recent times, the majority of our energy has been generated from the burning of coal, oil and gas. These 'fossil fuels' produce harmful greenhouse emissions (such as carbon dioxide) that cause the earth's average temperature to rise. In order to slow global warming, we need to reduce our emissions of these gasses. Fossil fuels are also finite as they take millions of years to form under extreme temperature and pressure, meaning they will eventually run out. In the future it is inevitable that we will have to transition from fossil fuels, however the sooner we transition, the greater the chance of limiting the effects of greenhouse gases on our climate.

The graph below shows various temperature predictions and demonstrates the need to reduce global emissions if we want to reduce global warming.

Global average temperatures (https://www.carbonbrief.org/media/132724/ipcc.png)

The Paris Agreement

The 2016 Paris Agreement is a treaty signed by 190 countries. Its goal is to ensure the average global temperature does not exceed 2°C warmer than it was before the industrial revolution (1850-1900 levels). It also aims to strengthen countries’ ability to deal with the impacts of climate change and support them in their efforts. Under the Paris Agreement, each country must determine, plan, and produce reports detailing work being done to combat climate change.

In order to achieve this goal, we must ensure that the levels of anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse emissions do not exceed the rate that greenhouse gases are absorbed by carbon sinks such as trees (and technology such as CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage)).

Each country has its own approach to this. For example, the UK has committed to be carbon neutral by 2050. This would mean achieving a perfect balance between the levels of carbon emitted for UK energy usage and those removed from the atmosphere. This will be a complex process involving systematic changes to transport, food, farming and housing to name just a few industries. To help achieve this, the government has brought forward its policy to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 5 years. The UK now hopes to sell only electric cars from the year 2035.

How do we transition?

To reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to produce more energy from renewable sources. Around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy production and use, meaning this is at the centre of efforts to combat climate change. There are a multitude of different renewable energy sources available to us. The main renewable energy sources include the wind, the sun, the tides, and the heat from the earth's interior. These are all natural sources of energy which will not run out. If we harness these to generate power, we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Renewable technologies are constantly improving, becoming cheaper and more efficient, helping to drive the energy transition forward.

TROVE Renewables has written articles explaining some of the key technologies that are enabling the energy transition. Click Here to see the full series.
Global installed power generation capacity by source, 2000-2040

The future

At current rates, we are set to miss the aims set out by the Paris Agreement - we need to scale up renewable energies more rapidly. However, with public support for renewable energy higher than it has ever been, and with costs falling, we can expect there to be a sharp rise in companies and governments rolling out green technology.

Globally, the share of renewable energy in the power sector would increase from 25% in 2017 to 85% by 2050 (International Renewable Energy Agency). The UK itself is a prime location for almost all renewable technologies (even solar!). Currently the UK has around 23GW of installed wind capacity, which is set to rise to 40GW by 2030. The UK plans to start producing and exporting wave energy by 2024, a market worth an estimated £76bn. Solar power represented around 13GW of installed capacity last year (2019), with increases of around 1GW a year predicted for the next decade.

The renewable era has arrived and it has only just begun.

Next weeks blog will describe Geothermal Energy.

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