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Resilience as the new obstacle for energy transitions?

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By Ivo Wakounig

· 6 min read

The crises of the past years have revealed the fragility of our global, interconnected economic systems. After decades of chasing efficiency and just-in-time supply chains, the crises disrupted everything within weeks. For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries didn’t have access to a lot of medical material primarily because of the disrupted supply chains. This has led to a temporary collapse of the health systems in many countries, and other sectors were affected too, including energy. Out of the ashes rose the concept of resilience, as an answer to many of the issues we currently face. But what does resilience actually mean? And what role shall resilience play in the energy transition?

The dilemma between resilience and efficiency

I am a big fan of system dynamics. Our whole world can be described as a complex system with its own actors, interactions, rules, constraints, goals, relationships, etc. A key characteristic is that the dependencies within the system are hard or difficult to predict and one small change or turbulence could have huge effects on the functioning of a system. Furthermore, other key characteristics are a system’s efficiency and resilience. Efficiency can be described as the ratio between output and input, for example in energy or monetary terms. Resilience can be described as how strong the relationships of a system’s parts are, and to what extent those systems can absorb changes of parameters and still persist. 

Let me use the current issue with gas imports in Europe as an example to explain those concepts shortly. It would be most efficient to procure all our needs from one single cheap supplier. But this is not resilient, because the supply chain only needs to have one small disruption, for example, a technical error, and we are left without gas. On the other hand, the most resilient option would be to source gas from every possible supplier in the world, but this would be immensely costly and, hence, inefficient because we would need to build infrastructure for each of the suppliers. Resilience and efficiency are therefore in most cases opposite to each other (there are of course exceptions). The Club of Rome has analysed the relationship between efficiency and resilience and in order to maximise your system’s sustainability, we need to balance those two parameters out, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1. Relationship between efficiency and resilience

relationship between efficiency and resilienceSource: Club of Rome

The role of resilience in energy transitions

While resilience is crucial to keep systems and their interactions alive in case of a shock, one must also explore to what extent we should make our energy systems more resilient to respond to external shocks or crises. For example, the war in Ukraine has exposed the lack of resilience of the European fossil gas markets, with enormous adverse effects on global energy trade. A more resilient European energy system wouldn’t have allowed for such significant detrimental effects. While there is a clear imbalance between efficiency and resilience in energy systems as shown in the European example, it is needless to say that our global energy system falls short on many other aspects as well. The current global energy system contributes greatly to the climate crisis, and fossil fuels, its backbone, still today poison the environment & people.  

The energy transition towards more inclusive and clean energies is one of the biggest endeavours humanity has ever embarked on – it is nothing less than changing the structure (physical and social) of our entire world. It will take decades and we might not even finish it by the end of the century (maybe there isn’t a finishing line after all?). While the upcoming decades will be shaped by transformations, disruptions will increase immensely too. Extreme weather events and other disasters will test our global energy system in the upcoming decades more than ever before.

Every disaster presents an opportunity for system change, but resilience prevents that change from happening. Resilience means sticking to the status quo, by preserving the system that existed before the shock.

Resilience may help get through some of the shocks but does not help in advancing towards a transition. Every disaster presents an opportunity for system change, but resilience prevents that change from happening. Resilience means sticking to the status quo, by preserving the system that existed before the shock. This could dramatically slow down energy transitions, therefore striving for resilience may actually mean striving for non-transition. So what shall we do?

Towards adaptable energy systems

Adaptability, or the ability to adapt, is a concept that is very relevant to navigating through the climate crisis. Climate adaptation has become increasingly important to ensure that our societies won’t be affected as much by the crisis’ negative effects. As such, adaptability is not about having a system that remains the same after a shock but creating a system that learns from those shocks and takes a different form, making it less vulnerable to future shocks. It is for a good reason that policymakers don’t advocate for climate resilience, but for climate adaptation. And what is true for climate, is also true for energy.

The upcoming decades will experience so much turmoil and changes, because of the climate crisis and (un)expected shocks, that we simply cannot afford resilient energy systems. We need energy systems that evolve over time, through modifying their structure and learning through shocks. And this is particularly important in energy transitions. Decarbonisations means changing energy systems’ structure, not preserving it. Coming back to the fossil gas example in Europe: resilience means having more import routes but keeping the energy system (or fossil gas dependency) alive. Adaptability means adapting the energy system, by further accelerating energy transitions, for example by moving towards renewable energies. These are two very different strategies!

Adaptability AND resilience

Moving from idealism to reality, it is quite reasonable to not move from one extreme (resilience only) to the other (adaptability only), because resilience is, despite its shortcomings, still something that we need in energy systems. And many actions that may contribute to resilience may also make us more adaptable! For example, the European Commission employed a combination of both actions through its REPowerEU package, by increasing resilience through diversifying gas imports and adaptation by accelerating the deployment of renewables. This would satisfy the short-term needs of the current system (resilience), and the medium- and long-term needs of transforming towards a new one (adaptability). Trying to find such a balanced response is a reasonable approach to most of the shocks, and REPowerEU may serve as a best-case example of how to balance out both needs. 

Given the critical need to swiftly decarbonise our energy systems, it is incremental that we don’t overdo it with our responses to external shocks by creating an incredibly resilient global energy system because of our learnings of the past years. This energy system has failed us in the past, present, and will do so in the future, if we don’t adapt it to the changing shocks and needs. My call to action is, therefore, to be cautious when advocating for resilient energy systems, because this may lock us in our journey of failure on which we are currently in. Let’s rather focus on how to create adaptable energy systems, which are resilient too (and efficient).

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ivo Wakounig is a PhD Researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology, where he studies how policies can support the transformation of the European North Sea into an integrated renewable energy hub. He is also a Global Future Energy Leader of World Energy Council and a strong advocate for intergenerational cooperation. 

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