The energy system is undergoing a change of paradigm. Cheap fossil energies, supplied by giant companies, variants of King Coal or Big Oil & Gas, are no longer welcome to fuel our needs if we expect global warming to remain under control, or, at the very least, if humanity can hope mitigate its worst consequences on the climate. These include more frequent catastrophic meteorological events, giant fires, like in California or Siberia, flooding, like in China or Bangladesh, freezing storms, like polar vortex-induced in Texas, desertification of once arable lands, sea level rise, and so on, and so forth.
Energy is going local after a couple of centuries of globalization. A sustainable future has to massively rely on renewable energies, hydro, solar or wind, that are essentially mostly used close to where they are produced, as electricity does not travel as easily as liquids or solids, thus slowly changing the driving force from a globalized supply to a local demand. In the past, the average citizen expected energy, gas, electricity or car fuel to come inconspicuously to his or her door and never questioned its source. Now he or she has now a word to say about how the local energy is produced and used, as he or she can see and feel the consequences. Just check the number of protests against wind generators in your backyard. And, in our advanced economies, ultimate comfort is now a reality for most of us, not any more a work in progress, like in the 1960s, when a measure of unpleasant and ugly side effects was then accepted as the price to pay to attain a better standard of living. There is no more of that in the 21st century.
Sustainability is anchored on three pillars, planet, profit, people: only the latter two can be directly felt by citizens, in the availability of good-paying jobs, of a decent level of social security, of a healthy environment, to name several key expected entitlements in societies where individual well-being is far more important than living together. The planet is remote, from both spatial and temporal viewpoints, and will likely fall behind if acceptation becomes an issue.
This begets the question: how to make smart, sustainable, decisions when energy becomes a local affair? In other terms, how can we educate citizens towards the rightful choices, when energy may now bear a direct impact on everyday life? The European Commission has listed clear, but aloof, priorities in its European Green Deal, aiming at making our continent “Zero Net Carbon” by 2050: energy efficiency, electrification, new molecules when electricity is not applicable. But what does it mean for a given citizen?
Energy efficiency is a no-brainer, providing adequate funds are available to replace old appliances by newer, efficient, ones: advanced economies, monetary sovereign, can make funds available, as we have witnessed during the aftermath of the 2008 financial or 2020 pandemic crises.
Electrification is far more complex: compared to fossil energy, electricity is at a clear disadvantage in energy density and storage capacity, and getting 100 % renewable is a goal in itself, each of these three deficiencies having consequences at a local level. Not forgetting a detail: if massive electrification is contemplated, can urban centers, the largest consumers, generate locally their demand or will they rely on non-urban areas for their supply? As renewable energy is not as densely and remotely generated, compared to fossil, a strong debate on social acceptability is to be expected here.
Taking us back to the subject of educating and empowering citizens towards the new energy paradigm. In short, reassuring all of us:
That money will be made available to everyone to be properly equipped with the most efficient appliances, in housing, transport, … leaving no one behind, not like now, when only a few can afford long paybacks when replacing their old boiler with a heat pump or solar panels. Again, sovereign monetary countries can do that and must do that to prove their engagement in the fight against climate change, and also help countries that do not enjoy monetary sovereignty.
That common interest must prevail against self-interest, but that negative consequences will be compensated for, in the form of local good-paying jobs, future security of food supply, lower insurance premiums against climate events, to name a few. It is called an impact study, and it has to be exhaustive and convincing if we want suspicious citizens to buy-in the new environment they are proposed to live in.
Last, but not least, a massive effort should be engaged to educate our young ones, at school, and to re-educate the adults, with all the media we have, explaining ad nauseam that we have no other choice than adapt to reality, with no alternative, and certainly not by procrastinating: such an effort requires international consensus, coordination and cooperation, are the World Leaders ready for that?
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).