Energy transition, in its modern form, is an unprecedented international effort to replace the dominant technologies that supply power to the global economy. Unlike most other technological advances, the process is neither spontaneous nor opportunistic. Nor is it simply about “better” energy supply. Instead, energy transition is the principal component of what is essentially a mandated worldwide pollution response and cleanup campaign. The targeted pollutants are anthropogenic greenhouse gases identified through international agreement by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several industrial chemicals based on fluorine.
Energy transition is a response intended specifically to end emissions of carbon dioxide, which are produced by fossil fuel combustion and which account for the largest portion – up to 75 percent – of the pollutants targeted by the UNFCCC. The cleanup of carbon dioxide is a separate component of the worldwide campaign, and is technically and politically at the development stage. If and when fully deployed, it will reduce the proportions of atmospheric carbon dioxide to acceptable levels.
Energy transition involves four major economic sectors of the global economy: electricity generation, transportation, heavy industries (such as cement and steel manufacturing), and building/home operations. In each of these sectors, the core transition objective is to replace all energy conversion devices that emit carbon dioxide pollution with energy conversion devices that do not. Infrastructure, transmission systems and processes built around these devices are to be replaced or modified accordingly.
These objectives follow an established development pathway known as the innovation chain: scientists and engineers – in private enterprise and in government sponsored laboratories – develop zero carbon technologies that are adopted by individuals and organizations through market diffusion. To manage the development, timing and extent of adoption, subnational and national governments intervene in the development and diffusion process through public-private partnerships, regulations or direct control.
To maintain essential energy supply in the world economy, and to provide the energy needed to carry out transition, the process of energy transition itself demands unprededented focus and coordination. The severe and worsening warming effects of carbon dioxide pollution worldwide make it imperative that the phase out of polluting technologies and systems, and the phase in of non polluting (zero carbon dioxide) equivalents, occurs globally and in the shortest possible time frame.
photo: Vestas wind turbine factory