“Energy transition” is one of the main elements of the ecological transition, which advocates a more sustainable economic, social and environmental model. Everyone’s talking about it, and what’s more, it’s happening right now. So what’s behind this concept, what are the stakes involved and what impact is it having on mobility?
Energy transition is the name given to the change in energy generation methods and energy consumption. It’s about a shift towards a more frugal system based on decarbonized energy sources that are renewable, clean and safe. This applies to almost all human activities: heating, lighting, transportation, industry, etc. It’s about cutting the use of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), non-renewable, greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources, in favor of renewable energy sources that are considered inexhaustible such as the sun (solar power), wind (wind power), water (hydraulic power), heat from underground (geothermal power), tide movement (tidal power) and organic matter (biomass).
This energy transition revolves around two main tenets: generating energy in ways that release less CO2 and cutting overall energy consumption, in particular by improving efficiency. The aim is therefore to do better, with less. This gradual shift from one energy model to another is the reason we talk about a “transition”.
In 2017, the energy production sector was responsible for 80.7% of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union. Burning coal, oil and gas to generate energy releases carbon emissions in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the main greenhouse gases (81%). Since global warming results from the increasing build-up of these gases in the atmosphere, dropping fossil fuels in favor of decarbonized energy sources would automatically help limit emissions, especially of CO2.
Global warming causes an imbalance in atmospheric ecosystems that, among other things, leads to a rise in extreme weather phenomena (storms, heatwaves, floods, droughts) which pose a direct threat to the population and threaten key human activities like farming.
It’s also worth noting that the greenhouse gases that cause global warming are not the only emissions released by the burning of fossil fuels. They also release fine particles and other polluting emissions that affect air quality. By working to reduce them, energy transition therefore also improves public health.
Energy transition also involves consuming less by living a more considered lifestyle and reducing waste.
It’s about avoiding using energy unnecessarily and optimizing systems so that they need less energy to produce the same yield. In the building, renovation, construction and automotive industries, strict norms and changes to heating systems can help cut yearly heating bills by 90%. This is what’s called energy efficiency. In the future, the development of smart grids and data from smart cities will make it possible to implement appropriate energy efficiency policies.
Energy transition is not just a vision of the future, it’s happening right now. In a report, the NGO WWF highlighted “15 signals” that show how the energy transition is gaining ground worldwide. In 2015, for example, renewable energy sources accounted for 90% of new electricity generation capacity.
The progression of energy transition can also be measured in terms of the number of jobs that it creates. The International Labour Organization predicts that the green economy will create 24 million jobs worldwide by 2030. In the energy sector, this will notably go hand-in-hand with changing the energy mix, promoting the use of electric vehicles and improving the energy efficiency of buildings.
Modes of transportation, especially those run on fuel, are a significant source of energy expenditure and emissions. Again, the “less and better” tenet applies. The transportation sector alone accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union. This is less than energy production, but more than agriculture and industrial processes.
Energy transition and electric vehicle development are closely related if you look at the CO2 emissions released throughout the electric vehicle’s entire life cycle. Right from the start, the electric vehicle doesn’t release CO2 when being driven*. The origin of the electricity that it needs to run also plays an essential role in this positive impact. The more it comes from renewable sources, the more electric vehicles will turn out to be a smart choice. The European Environment Agency states that, using electricity solely from renewable energy sources, an electric vehicle releases four times less CO2 across its whole life cycle than a combustion-powered vehicle. What’s more, according to the FNH (The Nicolas Hulot foundation for nature and mankind), based on the current average energy mix in France, an electric car already has a carbon balance that’s two to three times better than that of a combustion-engine car.
In parallel, electric vehicle technologies promote the incorporation of renewable energy sources into the electric mix. By improving the flow between supply and demand, smart charging and two-way charging (vehicle to grid) help regulate and stabilize the network to make low-carbon, more affordable electricity available to everyone. Stationary energy battery storage systems using repurposed batteries complete the picture by plugging gaps in the supply of renewable energy.
What remains is to reduce the impact of manufacturing; essential when it comes to developing the electric vehicle market. In particular, this concerns the extraction of raw materials, production method efficiency, battery evolutions and the development of recycling.
The European Union has set itself the goal of reaching a 90% reduction in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To get there, we’ll need to change our behavior too. Starting with the transportation of people, for example, by reducing mobility needs through promoting remote working for company employees. Or by designing cities that are more centralized and suited to “active” modes of transportation (walking, cycling) and public transportation. Shared mobility is another development angle. Services like carpooling and car sharing on a self-serve basis are in particular aimed at reducing traffic volume and optimizing the utilization rate of cars, especially in city centers. In the future, connected and self-driving electric vehicles will bring cities efficient solutions for improved traffic flow, freeing up some of the space taken up by cars and improving city-dwellers’ quality of life.
So getting the energy transition right calls for a change in energy policy and also gradual modifications of our behaviors and lifestyle. Although the challenge is a tough one, it is also something that can spark innovation and provide opportunities to accelerate the transition, as demonstrated by the development of electric mobility.
*Neither atmospheric emissions of CO2 nor pollutants while driving (excluding wear parts).
Copyrights: inakiantonana, Mlenny, CarlFourie, LEMAL Jean-Brice, PLANIMONTEUR