Energy Transitions: The challenge is a global one, but the solutions are also local

Solar panels are the spearhead of renewable energies, but cannot fulfil all the hopes of energy transition

For Bernard Bourges, there is no doubt: there are multiple energy transitions. He is a researcher at IMT Atlantique studying the changes in the energy sector, and takes a multi-faceted view of the changes happening in this field. He associates specificities with each situation, each territory, which instead of providing an overall solution, give a multitude of responses to the great challenges in energy today. This is one of the central points in the “Energy Transitions: mechanisms and levers” MOOC which he is running from 15 May until 17 July 2017. On this occasion, he gives us his view of the current metamorphosis in the field of energy.


You prefer to talk about energy transitions in the plural, rather than the energy transition. Why is the plural form justified?

Bernard Bourges: There is a lot of talk about global challenges, the question of climate change, and energy resources to face the growing population and economic development. This is the general framework, and it is absolutely undeniable. But, on the scale of a country, a territory, a household, or a company, these big challenges occur in extremely different ways. The available energy resources, the level of development, public policy, economic stakes, or the dynamics of those involved, are parameters which change between two given situations, and which have an impact on the solutions put in place.


Is energy transition different from one country to another?

BB: It can be. The need to switch energy model in order to reduce global warming is absolutely imperative. In vast regions, global warming is a matter of life or death for populations, like in the Pacific Islands. On the contrary, in some cases, the rising temperatures may even be seen as an opportunity for economic development: countries like Russia or Canada will gain new cultivatable land. There are also contradictions in terms of resources. The development of renewable energies means that countries with a climate suited to solar or wind power production will have greater energy independence. Also, technical advances and melting ice caps are making some fossil fuel deposits more accessible, which had previously been too costly to use. This implies a multitude of opportunities, some of which are dangerously tempting, and contradictory interests, often within the same country or the same company.


You highlight the importance of economic stakes. What about political decisions?

BB: Of course, there is an important political dimension, as there is a wide range of possibilities. To make the system more complex, energy is an element which overlaps with other environmental challenges, as well as social ones like employment. This results in a specific alchemy. Contradictory choices will arise, according to the importance politicians place on these great problems of society. In France as in other countries, there is a law on energy transition. But this does not mean that this apparent, inferred unanimity is real. It is important to realize that behind the scenes, there may be strong antagonism. This conditions political, social and even technological choices.


“Behind the question of energy, there are physical laws, and we cannot just do what we want with them.”


On the question of technology, there is a kind of optimism which consists in believing that science and innovation will solve the problem. Is it reasonable to believe this?

BB: This feeling is held by part of the population. We need to be careful about this point, as it is also marketing speak used to sell solutions. However, it is very clear that technology will greatly contribute to the solutions put in place, but for now there is no miracle cure. Technology will probably never be capable of satisfying all needs for growth, at a reasonable cost, and without a major impact on the climate or the environment. I often see inventors pop up, promising perpetual movement or 100% productivity rates, or even more. It’s absurd! Behind the question of energy, there are physical laws, and we cannot just do what we want with them.


What about the current technologies for harvesting renewable resources? They seem satisfactory on a large scale.

BB: The enthusiasm needs to be tempered. For example, there is currently a lot of enthusiasm surrounding solar power, to the point where some people imagine all households on the planet becoming energy independent thanks to solar panels. However, this utopia has a technological limit. The sun is an intermittent resource, it is only available for half the day, and only in fine weather. This energy must therefore be stored in batteries. But batteries use rare resources such as lithium, which are not limitless. Extracting these resources has environmental impacts. What could be a solution for several tens of millions of Europeans can therefore become a problem for billions of other people. This is one of the illustrations of the multifaceted nature of energy transitions, which we highlight in our MOOC.


Does this mean we should be pessimistic about the potential solutions provided by natural resources?

BB: The ADEME carried out a study on a 100% renewable electricity mix by 2050. One of the most symbolic conclusions was that it is possible, but that we will have to manage demand. This implies being sure that new types of usage will not appear. But this is difficult, as innovations will result in a drop in energy prices. If the costs decrease, the result will be that new types of use are made possible, which will increase demand. The realistic solution is to use a combination of solutions that use renewable resources (locally or on a large scale), intelligent management of energy networks, and innovative technologies. Managing demand is not only based on technological solutions, but also on changes in organization and behavior. Each combination will therefore be specific to a given territory of situation.


Doesn’t this type of solution make energy management more complex for consumers, whether individuals or companies? 

BB: This question is typical of the mistake people often make, that of limiting the question of energy to electricity. Energy is certainly a question of electricity usage, but also thermal needs, heating, and mobility. The goal for mobility will be to switch to partially electric transport modes, but we are not there yet, as this requires a colossal amount of investment. For thermal needs, the goal is to reduce demand by increasing the energy efficiency of buildings. Electricity is really only a third of the problem. Local solutions must also provide answers to other uses of energy, with completely different types of action. Having said this, electricity does take center-stage, as there are great changes underway. These changes are not only technological but also institutional (liberalization for example), difficult to understand, and sometimes even misleading for consumers.


What do you mean by that?

BB: For the moment, we cannot differentiate between the electrons in the network. No provider can tell you at a given moment whether you are receiving electricity produced by a wind farm, or generated by a nuclear power plant. We therefore must be wary of energy providers who tell us the opposite. This is another physical constraint. There are also legal and economic constraints. But we have understood that in this time of great change, there are many actors who are trying to win, or at least trying not to lose.

This is also why we are running this MOOC. The consumer needs to be helped in understanding the energy chain: where does energy come from? What are the basic physical laws involved? We have to try and decipher these points. But, in order to understand energy transitions, we also have to identify the constraints linked specifically to human societies and organizations. This is another point we present in the MOOC, and we make use of the diverse range of skills of people at IMT’s schools and external partners.


This article is part of our dossier Digital technology and energy: inseparable transitions!


The MOOC “Energy Transitions: mechanisms and levers” in brief

The MOOC “Energy Transitions: mechanisms and levers” at IMT is available (in French) on the “Fun” platform. It will take place from 15 May to 17 July 2017. It is aimed at both consumers wanting to gain a better understanding of energy, and professionals who want to identify specific levers for their companies.


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