The importance of energy in everyone’s life is clear since a long time. But recent events like the global pandemic and the Russian aggression on Ukraine are offering important elements of reflections on the use of energy and its future.
Energy ideally needs to address key characteristics: availability; security, affordability and sustainability. Satisfying all those parts (and doing so simultaneously) is the challenge of our time.
The availability of energy is something given for granted, particularly in the developed world. It should not be the case. Behind the refilling of a car’s tank or switching the light on there is a massive and complex industry that needs a myriad of components to work perfectly. Policy, regulation, the private sector, and technology are all instruments of an orchestra that has to play harmoniously to deliver the energy supply required.
But for energy, being available is not enough. It needs also to be secure. There is no social and economic system able to work properly and efficiently under the threat of energy shortages. Industry, transportation, hospitals and many other components of our lives need access to uninterrupted sources of energy to deliver the services at the level we consider modern and reliable. Many nowadays appreciate the risk of energy shortages and insecurity as potential consequences of Russian aggression. During the lockdown, the possibility to keep communicating, working and even having deliveries of food services has been ensured by the timely and responsible attitude of energy workers.
The affordability of energy is another interesting element to consider. And probably an area full of paradoxes. The most striking example is how a price of gasoline approaching 2 euro/liter in Europe (and much lower level in the US) is a reason good enough to trigger mass-scale strikes and protests, while paying the same a 33 cc of bottled water is considered normal and widely accepted. The reality is that energy supply is in most cases the result of an extraordinary industrial and technological process, often a very costly one. When it comes to oil and gas, it is a matter of bringing something buried below hundreds or thousands of meters to the surface, transporting, refining and distributing it before being utilised. But also clean technologies and renewables, too often described as free and a gratuity, requires a very complex infrastructure to be able to provide their contribution.
Sustainability is probably the most complex aspect of the energy sector. The environmental dimension has completely changed the energy equation. If having energy available, secure and affordable (at least for a part of the world) was mission accomplished, to make it also sustainable moves the challenge to a new height and dimension. The world's energy system still relies for about 80% of its total needs on fossil fuels, a similar share to over 30 years ago, when the total energy demand was less than half of today’s one. In other words, the inertia of the energy sector is simply astonishing.
So the natural question is if we are facing a sort of mission impossible? The answer is no, but – if there is something to learn from the pandemic first and ongoing war now – is that energy is a serious thing where 140-characters slogans and shortcuts bring nowhere.
Covid-19 offered clear evidence of the resilience of a sector that has been shaped throughout multi-decades. Many were expecting the pandemic to mark a turning point in the use of energy. Some forecasted the peak of oil demand; others celebrated the decline of emissions. The reality showed all its harshness already in 2021 with consumption of all fossil fuels rebounding with record growths and emissions resuming a worrying and steep upward trend.
Fossils are hard to die; but even harder are social habits and comfort zones
The Russian aggression on Ukraine and the brutality of its military operations are fuelling a live debate across Europe and beyond about the possibility of sanctioning all Russian energy exports. The point here is not if Europe should ban such energy imports or not; the problem is that the debate has shifted immediately to an oversimplified territory. All the attention has focused on just searching for options to replace the supply coming from Russia without looking in detail if alternative sources are timely available. Even more importantly – most of the debate has forgotten to look at the real part of the problem: the demand and massive levels of energy that we consume every day.
But even before such massive global shocks, the energy debate was discounting massive generalisation and myths. The list is long and I listed some of them here.
In a nutshell, too often and too easily we surrender to the temptation of finding shortcuts or easy solutions to the challenges of the energy system. Making energy available, secure, affordable AND sustainable is a super difficult job.
Yet, there are elements for optimism: many renewables in the power sector, such as wind and solar, have made progress unimaginable just a decade ago and today are mainstream and competitive; electric vehicles have become a solid and concrete hope for a revolution in the private mobility; companies are stepping up their sustainability targets under a growing pressure from consumers; batteries are deployed more and more to make a renewables-based system possible; hydrogen is experiencing a second renaissance after the great attention of a few decades ago, and hopefully this time with a better outcome. Government, consumers, investors are aligning towards a stronger sustainability awareness. Last but not least, technological progress and innovation keep delivering new solutions and applications.
All these areas offer a degree of confidence in the ability of humankind to finally shape a sustainable trajectory. But the number of areas to address remain ample: from creating a reliable and sustainable supply chain for all minerals that are the backbone of clean technologies, to the massive challenge of transforming our petrochemical industry that produces goods that are pervasive in our society; up to the realisation in an environmental-friendly way of all commodities like steel, cement and others that are the skeleton of any modern economy.
Putting everything on track will not be easy and will not be quick. And it needs to be treated properly. Getting (more) serious about energy is definitely the right thing to start with.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.