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Energy transition: there is still a lot of unexploited potential

Low carbon energies still depend on fossil fuels, slowing the energy transition

Victor Court, Lecturer at IFP School and Research Associate at Chaire Énergie & Prospérité
On February 14th, 2024 |
4 min reading time
Victor Court
Victor Court
Lecturer at IFP School and Research Associate at Chaire Énergie & Prospérité
Key takeaways
  • The energy transition is currently being hampered by the synergy between fossil and low carbon energy systems.
  • The transition we need to make will have to be absolute and rapid, which means building a considerable number of infrastructures based on renewables.
  • This should be accompanied by a return to material constraints and an awareness of planetary limits.
  • Green hydrogen is promising but would require a quantitative increase in production to reach the target of 500 million tonnes/year by 2050.
  • The efforts required are comparable to those of a war economy, although the use of this term is misleading, as it implies that the effort will be short-lived.
  • Preparing for the paradigm shift imposed by ecological transformation is essential.

The facts are clear: we need to dras­ti­cal­ly reduce our green­house gas emis­sions. With today’s tech­nolo­gies, this means aban­don­ing fos­sil fuels if we hope to lim­it the extent of cli­mate change. This tran­si­tion to decar­bonised ener­gy sources (wind, pho­to­volta­ic, hydro, nuclear, geot­her­mal, bio­gas, etc.) will not be easy. It will be a first for mankind, as his­to­ri­an Jean-Bap­tiste Fres­soz1 has shown. Until now, ener­gy sys­tems have been cumu­la­tive, rather than one source sub­sti­tut­ing for another.

To get from pro­duc­tion sites to instal­la­tion sites, the com­po­nents of a nuclear pow­er plant or pho­to­volta­ic pan­els are still being shipped around the world on con­tain­er ships pow­ered by fos­sil fuels. Hence, renew­able ener­gies are devel­op­ing in syn­er­gy with fos­sil fuels. For exam­ple, cop­per is a cru­cial ele­ment in pow­er grids and thus in the ener­gy tran­si­tion. With some 5.5 mil­lion tonnes extract­ed every year, Chile is the world’s lead­ing pro­duc­er. To meet near­ly 25% of the world market’s needs, Chilean mines use thou­sands of tonnes of refined petro­le­um, which is essen­tial for bull­doz­ers, as well as elec­tric­i­ty, 40% of which is pro­duced from coal2. Coal is import­ed by ship from Colom­bia, Aus­tralia, and the Unit­ed States, via a sup­ply chain that also relies on oil and gas.

Glob­al con­sump­tion of pri­ma­ry ener­gy, i.e. the sum total of unprocessed ener­gy prod­ucts, is ris­ing steadi­ly.  And the syn­er­gy works both ways: more and more fos­sil fuel extrac­tion sites are run­ning on renew­able ener­gies, as illus­trat­ed by the wind tur­bines pow­er­ing South Africa’s Mpumalan­ga coal mines, or the pho­to­volta­ic pan­els deployed around Texas oil wells.

A bottleneck

The tran­si­tion we must make will need to be absolute, not rel­a­tive like those of the past. And, as an added dif­fi­cul­ty, to com­pen­sate for the immense ener­gy den­si­ty of fos­sil fuels, many infra­struc­tures based on renew­ables will need to be oper­a­tional rapidly.

In order to achieve a car­bon-neu­tral world econ­o­my by 2050, i.e. a tran­si­tion capa­ble of keep­ing cli­mate drift to 1.5°C, the Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency (IEA)3 has iden­ti­fied hydro­gen as play­ing a cen­tral role. The prop­er­ties of this ener­gy “car­ri­er” make it par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to decar­bon­is­ing indus­tri­al process­es (steel and fer­tilis­er pro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar) and air and sea trans­port. Today, some 115 mil­lion tonnes of hydro­gen are pro­duced world­wide every year, main­ly through indus­tri­al process­es based on gas and coal. These tech­niques there­fore emit green­house gas­es. The IEA esti­mates that by 2050, 500 mil­lion tonnes of hydro­gen per year will be need­ed, this time from low car­bon sources.

How can we achieve this quan­tum leap? White hydro­gen, of nat­ur­al ori­gin, a large deposit of which has just been dis­cov­ered in the Lor­raine region of France, does not appear to be a viable option on this scale with­in the time­frame imposed for the tran­si­tion. Although more advanced indus­tri­al­ly, the same is true of blue hydro­gen, which is based on the com­bus­tion of fos­sil fuels com­bined with car­bon cap­ture and seques­tra­tion. Instead, we’d have to rely on “green” hydro­gen, pro­duced by the elec­trol­y­sis of water using decar­bonised elec­tric­i­ty. But the elec­tric­i­ty require­ments would then be gigan­tic. Pro­duc­ing 500 mil­lion tonnes of car­bon-free hydro­gen per year would mean build­ing some 4,000 new nuclear reac­tors world­wide, in addi­tion to the cur­rent 437. If polit­i­cal choic­es lead to a pref­er­ence for wind pow­er, 6.2 mil­lion wind tur­bines would have to be installed by 2050, com­pared with the cur­rent glob­al total of some 500,000.

Will we have the indus­tri­al and mate­r­i­al resources for these devel­op­ments? Recent research shows that, in a rapid tran­si­tion sce­nario, the con­struc­tion of the low-car­bon ener­gy sys­tem risks pro­duc­ing a bot­tle­neck on avail­able ener­gy. For a few decades, the low-car­bon ener­gy sys­tem would can­ni­bal­ize so much ener­gy that it would con­strain oth­er pro­duc­tive sys­tems, leav­ing much less ener­gy avail­able for air trans­port, steel or cement pro­duc­tion for oth­er pur­pos­es4.

Heading towards a war economy?

A rapid ener­gy tran­si­tion, com­pat­i­ble with nation­al com­mit­ments, risks impos­ing extreme­ly severe con­straints on our soci­eties, which we need to antic­i­pate. Accord­ing to cer­tain mod­els, we can expect a mas­sive redi­rec­tion of the pro­duc­tion appa­ra­tus, com­pa­ra­ble to that expe­ri­enced by the Unit­ed States when it entered the Sec­ond World War5. The mate­r­i­al and ener­gy require­ments to pro­duce wind tur­bines, pho­to­volta­ic pan­els and elec­trol­y­sers would be such that they could lead to a short­age of every­day goods. This could even restrict house­hold con­sump­tion. Against this back­drop, unem­ploy­ment is like­ly to fall, as the need for man­pow­er will be con­sid­er­able. But the com­bi­na­tion of indus­tri­al effort, ten­sion on the labour mar­ket and, con­se­quent­ly, ris­ing wages, would lead to high infla­tion – around 10% a year – for sev­er­al decades to come.

But it’s not all over yet. Many polit­i­cal deci­sions could influ­ence this “war econ­o­my” sce­nario. In fact, the term is already being called into ques­tion. Not least because, his­tor­i­cal­ly, a war econ­o­my is tem­po­rary; it’s an effort demand­ed of cit­i­zens with a view to a return to nor­mal­i­ty6. How­ev­er, if the eco­log­i­cal bifur­ca­tion is suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed, there is no ques­tion of return­ing to the world of the past, with its waste and abysmal inequalities.

In this new world, nei­ther the tech­ni­cal progress essen­tial to the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the tran­si­tion, nor the var­i­ous polit­i­cal options, will enable us to free our­selves from the mate­r­i­al con­straints imposed by the phys­i­cal world. With­out the illu­sions cre­at­ed by the easy ener­gy of fos­sil fuels, our rela­tion­ship with ener­gy will revert to that which human­i­ty knew before the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Is this cat­a­stroph­ic? No, we just need to accept this return of restric­tions and adapt to them as soon as pos­si­ble. Oth­er­wise, we run the risk of becom­ing the vic­tims of this new ener­gy order.

Interview by Agnès Vernet
1Fres­soz, J.-B. Sans tran­si­tion. Une nou­velle his­toire de l’énergie, Paris, Seuil, 2024.
2Perez, J.-L., Pitron, G. La Face Cachée des Éner­gies Vertes, 2020.
4Slameršak, A., Kallis, G., O’Neill, D.W. “Ener­gy require­ments and car­bon emis­sions for a low-car­bon ener­gy tran­si­tion “, Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, 2022, vol. 13, 6932.  
5Jacques, P. et al. “Assess­ing the eco­nom­ic con­se­quences of an ener­gy tran­si­tion through a bio­phys­i­cal stock-flow con­sis­tent mod­el”, Eco­log­i­cal Eco­nom­ics, 2023, vol. 209, 107832.
6Mon­net, E. “Économie de guerre et écolo­gie : les risques de l’analogie”, L’Économie poli­tique, 2023, vol. 95, pp. 94–102.

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