Category:Technological Dimension

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Why technology matters for the future of energy

The EU has based its energy policy on three fully balanced, integrated and mutually reinforced strategic pillars; competitiveness, sustainability and security, as the way to reduce costs, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and imports. Along the years, it has been trying to ensure competitive prices for its citizens, establish itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change and achieve greater energy independence[1].

Regardless of the perspective from which the topic of energy is approached - as a public good, a necessity foreconomic growth, a demand and supply cycle, a polluting or a geopolitical factor - there is one defining parameter that affects all the above; we are yet to find a cost-effective way to transmit and most importantly store electrical energy at a large scale. Consequently, the cost for infrastructural development needed for market integration, the intermittency of Renewable Energy Sources (RES), and the lack of sufficient energy resources within the EU pose significant challenges when it comes to the future of European energy. Thus, energy technology innovation is key to meeting economic, climate and security objectives.

Key areas of energy transformation

To understand the daunting task of creating a sustainable future energy system, one must first define the efficiency of the current systems, which touch three key end-use sectors; electricity, heating and transport. The so-called ‘energy transition’ or transformation entails not only the re-design of all three sectors from production to consumption, but also their convergence in technological, societal and economic terms.

This vision is built around the modernisation of the electrical grid, with the gradual development of ‘smart grids’, which use information and communication technologies (ICT) to manage electricity more efficiently while adding new nodes to the electrical grid such as RES, thus turning households into a consumer-producer-hybrid. The promise of the smart grid is to enable a new paradigm with a reduced energy cost and the environmental benefits of RES.

The challenge is to make this work and maintain the quality of life; networks of integrated micro-grids in electricity, heating and transportation that can monitor and heal themselves, expanding the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT). This concept of decentralised energy, with the co-existence of central and distributed systems, paves the way to decarbonisation. For transport, this points to all forms of electric vehicles, which are to become the most sustainable form of transportation, placing new demands on the system, while offering significant potential for distributed energy storage. Technologies for heating, cooling, and refrigeration on the other hand are tied to efficiency, as they account for roughly half the EU’s energy consumption at the moment.

Ways forward

It is evident from the above trends that innovative and transformative changes are not about one specific technology or energy source, but rather require long-term, system oriented goals. This type of systems thinking goes hand in hand with expanding the scope of innovation support across the low-carbon technology spectrum, while ensuring tangible value to make the leap to large-scale deployment.

A key challenge in that sense is how to implement the existing tools and mechanisms, assessing what is realistic and economically sensible; the future of energy is already here, with wireless charging vehicles and supercapacitors. At the same time though, policy support and new market frameworks are crucial for the right technologies to move forward.

Listing current energy innovation developments exceeds the scope of this document[2], which merely provides one bigger picture to the present and future scene of energy technology. The European Union aspires to lead the way in energy research and innovation (R&I), mainly through its Horizon 2020 funding instrument. However, the promise this creates requires policy to catch up with it, in order to drive climate action and mobilise private investment. The technology pillar of the EU’s current energy and climate policy is the Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan), which aims to develop low-carbon, economically viable technologies by bringing together policy, research and industry actors on a European level. R&I is also one of the five interlocking dimensions of the Commission’s new energy and climate strategy, the ‘Energy Union’, aiming at accelerating energy system transformation.

Key actors

Political leadership, or current lack thereof, is an issue of great importance to the future of energy technology. Through channeled funding of research efforts innovation can be fostered but, smart, effective policies for different technologies at different stages are also essential. Long-term private investments require stable and comprehensive policies, as it can be observed in the wind and solar industries in Germany. Hence, the role of business is crucial too. Although traditionally energy companies resist to change and businesses are known to object to environmental policies, as more stakeholders translate sustainability to profitability, consumers are more attracted to sustainable products. The prevalent paradigms for the future of energy though place individuals at the core of energy systems, not only as energy consumers, but also as informed citizens (decarbonisation), enterprise (microgeneration) and community (decentralisation) leaders.

Some questions

  • How can the EU move into the new era of energy?
  • How to decarbonise supply and increase end-use efficiency?
  • What technology opportunities arise with the recent decrease in fossil fuel prices?
  • How to invite innovation in less developed economies?
  • What kind of long-term planning will decrease the risks and foster Research & Innovation (R&I) investment?
  • Can we set emission targets for the technologies of the future?
  • Is this future brighter and closer than we think?

Links for further research

  1. For a detailed outline of the main EU policy objectives and actors in the field of energy, please see the European Parliament's "EU Energy Governance for the Future" study.
  2. More information on energy research in Europe is available on the website of the Energy Research Knowledge Centre.