Explaining energy and energy transition is about as easy as teaching your grandmother how to use Twitter. First you need to understand what energy is (did you know electricity isn’t energy? Shoot, I just spoiled point #6). Basically, we accumulate ideas and clichés in a field just as complex as it is essential. Makesense takes you on a small tour of our preconceived ideas to better strip them down.
#1 The Energy Transition? Easy: just put solar panels everywhere and let’s get over with it.
Energy is in everything that surrounds us. From the computer on which you’re reading this article, the beanie covering your ears, to the light that enlightens you when you read your favourite book, the heating of your apartment, and the carrots you ate this afternoon.
It’s therefore important to understand how energy is produced, stored, transported and consumed. And, to lay it on thick (because otherwise it would be way too easy), accelerating the energy transition is also identifying which are the moments in the energy chain when carbon emissions and produced, that pollute and screw up the climate (yes, this phrase has been awarded the prize for “The most far-fetched phrase of 2018”).
How can we reform production methods to generate the least polluting energy possible (knowing that some solutions have the unfortunate tendency to solve a problem by just moving it elsewhere)? How can we transport this energy efficiently? And, how can it be consumed in the least polluting way possible? OKAY. No, it’s not easy. It’s exciting but it’ll give you knots to the brain. I’m just going to explaining Twitter to my grandmother I think…
# 2 There isn’t much I can do at my scale for the Energy Transition.
The room for manoeuvre varies according to each country and its citizens. When we type “energetic transition” in Google we immediately find beautiful fields made of wind turbines, extending as far as the eye can see. We immediately think of “production”. And one can feel paralysed by the scale of the investment required for a simple citizen. Okay, building 10,000 wind turbines with your own bare hands doesn’t look like a panacea.
Providing energy to the citizens of a country requires infrastructure that can often only be funded by states or large groups and many countries are adopting a centralised network that allows for a certain reliability in production and distribution.
However, citizens can influence energy production in at least two ways: by choosing renewable energy suppliers or by engaging in self-consumption. In Africa, the installation of off-grid solar panels in areas that were until now isolated are multiplying. In France, the law is gradually allowing citizens to organise in communities to produce and consume their own energy. In Germany, self-consumption is already more developed (5% of electricity consumption). In short, more and more opportunities are available to citizens who want to (re)appropriate their energy.
Each and every citizen can also act on his energy consumption even if, once again, the stakes are very different depending on his country. A Filipino who has just been connected to the electricity grid and a Brussels resident will not have the same priorities. But everyone can modulate their consumption (better isolate their home, limit their consumption of goods) for a positive impact. And yes, you feel it coming. She approaches… YES, here it is: the famous story of the hummingbird. If everyone does his part, there’s a snowball effect and we can save the forest (i.e. the planet, keep up please!).
#3 The Energy Transition only concerns the environment
Not only. The goal of the Energy Transition is to fight against climate change, no debate there. But social and ecological challenges are often interdependent. Sometimes, trying to solve an energy problem also solves social challenges. Like, for example, the Barefoot College which, by training women to become solar engineers in India meets more than 14 sustainable development goals. The energy transition also means giving access to renewable energy to isolated populations, and especially training them to become self-sufficient in energy.
#4 The Energy Transition? It’s about as fun as reading the dictionary as a bed-time story
Well, there is no doubt that there are more exciting activities than reading the report of the energy mix in Zimbabwe in 2017. But did you know that we could raise awareness on the energy transition by celebrating? Or with video games? That reducing one’s consumption can be much less boring than one thinks at first sight?
#5 New energies are a new thing
Absolutely not. Our ancestors were actually much more eco-friendly than we are. It was with the industrial revolution that we suddenly discovered the excellent idea to use fossil fuels. Before that, the sun, the wind, the heat of the earth, the water or the growth of plants had always been exploited by man:
– solar energy: in ancient times, the concentration of sun rays using bronze mirrors already made it possible to heat furnaces at high temperatures. The photovoltaic effect of converting light into electricity was discovered in 1839 by Becquerel;
– wind energy: it has also been exploited since ancient times by sailing boats and windmills for milling (1) and irrigation;
– biomass: it’s been used by mankind since Prehistory (burning of plants), as soon as he acquires control of fire to heat, cook food and light;
– Geothermal energy: the first traces of men using this energy date back almost 20,000 years. The practice of thermal baths pretty much develops with the birth of civilisation;
– hydropower: the force of water has been used for more than 2,000 years with mills and paddle boats. The wheels are used from the nineteenth century to produce electricity (hydroelectricity called “white coal”).
– Under Vauban (end of the 17th century), there were 65,000 water mills, 15,000 waterworks and 16,000 windmills. The industrial revolution in the nineteenth century marked a decline in renewable energy in favour of fossil fuels.
#6 Electricity is a source of energy
To say that electricity is a “source of energy” is a misuse of language. It is more accurate to call it “secondary energy” or “energy vector”.
Indeed, by “energy source” we mean a naturally available and directly usable energy that we call “primary”: oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, wind, hydraulic, biomass, solar radiation or geothermal energy. Electricity produced naturally, such as lightning or static electricity, can not be used as is. It can’t be considered as a source of energy.
Generated from the transformation of an energy source by means of a conversion system, electricity is a “secondary” energy. For example, it is produced by a turbine / dynamo converter that converts the heat energy contained in a fuel (gas, coal, biomass, enriched uranium, etc.) into electricity.
Electricity has the capacity to travel along conductive cables over long distances with low losses as a function of voltages and cycles (in direct current beyond 1500 km). This capacity gives it the role of energetic vector. Remember however that it is difficult to store.
# 7 It’s really easy to store electricity
Not really. Directly or indirectly, the storage of electricity is currently limited and expensive. This difficulty of storage penalises the balance between demand and supply of electricity on the networks, although they’re a growing part of intermittent production units (in particular solar and marine energy). It thus forces the networks to scale to cope with demand peaks and sometimes to underuse their productive apparatus. It is therefore a real challenge to store electricity efficiently, a subject on which the engineers around the world are pulling their hair out.
In France for example, the largest “stock” of electricity is contained in … hydraulic dams. Thanks to its gravitational potential, it is possible to raise water from the dam with electrically operated pumps that can then release it through generator turbines. It doesn’t look like it but it’s actually one of the most “flexible” ways we’ve found to date to balance the power grid.
#8 When I turn on the light in my apartment, I know exactly where my energy comes from
It depends on where you live of course. In France, the network is made up of a kind of enormous spider web and every household, company, lamp post is linked to this interconnected network, the RTE. When you turn on the light in your room, you don’t know whether the electricity comes from the wind farm in the field next door or the hydro dam 500 kilometres away. Everything is “mixed” in the pipes. In other countries, the network is less centralised and one can know if, for example, one consumes electricity or gas produced in the plant around the corner or of the solar panel on the roof.
#9 Energy transition issues are the same all over the world
Well, not at all, sorry. The countries that made their industrial revolution in the 19th century and massively adopted fossil fuel production methods are now reviewing their models to evolve towards renewable energies. In Lebanon, cities are repeatedly victims of power cuts preventing residents from accessing electricity for many hours. In Africa where ⅔ of the population does not have access to electricity. How can we ensure that these isolated populations adopt production methods that pollute as little as possible? In short, each city, each village, each city, is confronted with different issues
#10 It’s too late anyway
It’s not going to be easy, it’s useless to bury your head in the sand. But it is possible. Whether it is lobbying your colleagues to switch off the light in the toilet or invent a new super disruptive renewable energy that will make the energy transition the next “new ozone layer” (as a reminder the ozone layer is resorbing quietly but nobody talks about it), everyone can mobilise to make the energy transition a reality.
This article was produced as part of the Energies for Climate mobilisation. A program in partnership with EDF.
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Thanks to Connaissances des énergies.