The fossil-free future requires fundamental choices

One of the most pressing challenges humanity faces today is the conversion of our energy production and supply industry towards a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and efficient system. The world’s leading scientists have issued a mandate that this transition is the prerequisite for achieving the internationally agreed two-degree target. If human beings are to preserve modernity and planetary habitability, we must soon shift to 100% renewable energy in all sectors.  We cannot expect this to happen on its own as an automatic continuation of current trends but rather make a conscious switch to the only path that allows for a future viable for human life.

The future of renewable energies is a fundamental choice, not a foregone conclusion of technological and economic trends.

- REN21, Global Future Report 2013

So, how to take action for a sustainable energy future? What does the future energy landscape look like? And how to overcome the huge challenges that come with this transformation process?

To design the energy system of the future one of the first paradigm shifts need to take place in understanding the problem: The world’s climate and energy crisis is not connected per se to energy, but rather to the fuel we are using – or should we say, burning. Essentially our system must shift from fuel-based to infrastructure-based energy. In a fossil free society we must build the infrastructure that is paid for by upfront investment but after that, fuel – meaning sun, wind, water etc. – is free and accrues almost no running costs. A 100% renewable energy system is therefore about energy services rather than energy consumption. The real paradigm shift that needs to take place is that energy must be understood as an investment not as a running cost.

However, converting our energy system is about more than replacing fossil fuel with sun and wind as new energy sources. This is where the true transformation starts and with it comes a battle. Our current fossil fuel based energy system is characterized by complex centralized infrastructures where a) the fuel is transported to the plant and b) energy production and distribution is in one hand. The supply chain is vertical and the benefits are shared only among a few stakeholders. In the necessary transformation towards 100% renewable this will change. By nature, renewable energy technology is decentralized, has a horizontal supply chain above the ground and requires an entirely different infrastructure and market. Hereby new actors and stakeholders enter the system, claim rights and have direct impacts.

People in northern Sweden, living in the county of Norrbotten, face this battle every day. When external investors and energy companies come to their communities to harvest new energy sources like wind, hydro power and wood for biomass, the citizens of Norbotten are usually only observers and in the best case receive compensation from these companies for letting them build the infrastructure on their land. The profits remain in the hands of the external investors and there is hardly any local value creation. Consequently there is a lot of resistance and scepticism against renewable energies.

This example shows that a 100% renewable energy system requires new ownership models. A true energy transition must ensure a wide participation of all stakeholders – because history has proven that people-centred solutions are the quickest and most efficient way to change society in such a fundamental manner as the energy transition does today.

In this context, the importance of national policy framework cannot be overstated or overestimated. There are best policy solutions implemented across Europe that kick started an incredible development, especially in countries like Germany, Denmark and Austria. The key success that boosted this transformation on a meaningful scale in a short time was the fact that the high share of renewable energies resulted in economic development and local value creation from which the broader public benefited. Feed-in tariffs (FiTs) played a key role by acting as a connecting policy that linked people, policy, energy and economy.

Indeed, Europe shows that participatory decentralized policy approaches achieve the necessary energy transition faster. And this is precisely what we need because we are running out of time. 100% renewable energies therefore hold huge opportunities as it is not only switching from fossil fuel to renewables but also a tool to decentralize the energy market, bring socio economic development and enable all stakeholders and citizens to participate.

Meanwhile, with a rapid development of renewable energies we need to adapt our policies constantly.  The challenge in many places in Europe is no longer to accelerate the deployment of but to integrate renewable energy technologies in existing infrastructure. Here, countries with a high share of renewables like Denmark can provide valuable expertise.

Knowledge transfer and exchange as well as the establishment of networks are vital in order to implement best policies for 100% renewable energy and adapt existing frameworks accordingly. Policy dialogue goes hand-in-hand with policy learning and is a prerequisite for enabling our future – because there is only one certainty in the biggest transformation process that humanity has ever faced: that the future we need is not a mere continuation of the past.

Monday, February 11th, 2013

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