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Energy transition: there is still a lot of unexploited potential

Can the energy transition succeed?

Olivier Sala, Vice-Chairman of ENGIE Group, in charge of research and innovation and Jordi Badosa, Technical director of the interdisciplinary Energy4Climate centre in the Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory (LMD) at Ecole Polytechnique (IP Paris)
On October 18th, 2023 |
3 min reading time
Olivier Sala
Olivier Sala
Vice-Chairman of ENGIE Group, in charge of research and innovation
Joris Badosa
Jordi Badosa
Technical director of the interdisciplinary Energy4Climate centre in the Dynamic Meteorology Laboratory (LMD) at Ecole Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • The urgency of climate change requires simultaneous developments on a range of technical solutions, which we will have to combine to decarbonise emissions.
  • Encouraging energy sufficiency, developing renewable energies, and capturing atmospheric CO2 are amongst the many possible avenues.
  • France is the 3rd largest producer of solar energy, but it currently accounts for just 3% of French energy consumption.
  • If photovoltaic energy is to be deployed on a massive scale, new, more efficient panels that are 90% recyclable will need to be installed in a variety of locations.
  • Promising new options are being explored, including the installation of panels on lakes and agri-voltaics.

Europe’s goal for 2050 is to move towards a low-car­bon world. “Glob­al warm­ing is expect­ed to reach 1.5 degrees by 2030, and prob­a­bly over 3 degrees or even 3.5 degrees by 2100, so we’ll soon be at unman­age­able tem­per­a­tures,” says Olivi­er Sala, vice-pres­i­dent in charge of research and inno­va­tion at Engie. “The urgent sit­u­a­tion we face on cli­mate change means we can’t wait any longer. But after decades of cli­mate denial, we shouldn’t give in to despon­den­cy. We have a duty to be opti­mistic, and to take action.”

Decarbonising our activities

So how best to go about it? First­ly, by reduc­ing our ener­gy con­sump­tion at a Euro­pean lev­el by at least 30–50%. This requires poli­cies that encour­age ener­gy suf­fi­cien­cy. Sec­ond­ly, by switch­ing to elec­tric­i­ty for as many of our activ­i­ties as pos­si­ble, using decar­bonised, renew­able ener­gy sources such as wind and solar pow­er. Third­ly, the use of low-car­bon mol­e­cules, either of bio­log­i­cal ori­gin (food or agri­cul­tur­al waste, for exam­ple), or pro­duced from hydro­gen. Unlike hydro­gen pro­duced from hydro­car­bons, hydro­gen obtained from the elec­trol­y­sis of water is non-polluting.

“If we want emis­sions with zero car­bon foot­print, the CO2 emit­ted must come from bio­genic sources, such as meth­a­niza­tion, a tech­nol­o­gy based on the break­down of organ­ic mat­ter by micro-organ­isms, under con­trolled con­di­tions and in the absence of oxy­gen,” con­tin­ues Olivi­er Sala. “Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is to cap­ture CO2 from the air. Major invest­ments are being made in this tech­nol­o­gy, but they won’t bear fruit for at least anoth­er ten years.”

Which of these avenues is Engie pur­su­ing? They’re all inter­est­ing, but they need to be stud­ied togeth­er, because there won’t be a mir­a­cle solu­tion for decar­boniz­ing our emis­sions, but a vari­ety of tech­ni­cal solu­tions that need to be com­bined accord­ing to local sit­u­a­tions. The chal­lenge is also to strength­en Europe’s abil­i­ty to pro­cure the raw mate­ri­als need­ed to man­u­fac­ture com­po­nents (cobalt and lithi­um in par­tic­u­lar) and to encour­age indus­tri­al inno­va­tion in these new energies.

Solar power: a European lead

After Ger­many and Italy, France is the third-largest pro­duc­er of solar ener­gy, but solar pow­er only accounts for 3% of French ener­gy con­sump­tion, so there’s plen­ty of room for growth in this sec­tor. This can be achieved not only by mul­ti­ply­ing the num­ber of pho­to­volta­ic pan­els, but also by diver­si­fy­ing the sur­faces on which they can be installed, and of course by improv­ing their per­for­mance. Jor­di Badosa, Research Direc­tor at École Poly­tech­nique (IP Paris) and Tech­ni­cal Direc­tor of the Cen­tre Inter­dis­ci­plinaire Energie4Climate (E4C), is work­ing on this very subject.

At the SIRTA atmos­pher­ic research obser­va­to­ry, he is devel­op­ing exper­i­men­tal instru­men­tal plat­forms to test con­di­tions that are more or less favor­able to pho­to­volta­ic pan­el ener­gy pro­duc­tion. The aim is to deploy solar ener­gy on a mas­sive scale across a dis­trict or city.

New uses for photovoltaics

New avenues are being explored, such as agri-voltaics, which involves com­bin­ing solar ener­gy pro­duc­tion with agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. Instal­la­tions are being test­ed above crops that need lit­tle sun­light (par­tic­u­lar­ly let­tuce), with pan­els that can be adjust­ed to let in more or less light depend­ing on the time of day and the time of year. In the event of drought, such pan­els can also pro­tect the soil from evap­o­ra­tion. Lakes would also be good places to install solar pan­els, because the warmer they are, the less ener­gy they pro­duce. Float­ing, they ben­e­fit from a nat­ur­al cool­ing effect. 

Sig­nif­i­cant progress has also been made in recy­cling the var­i­ous mate­ri­als that make up pho­to­volta­ic pan­els, which are now 90% recy­clable – an essen­tial fac­tor when con­sid­er­ing sus­tain­able technologies.

The issue of the inter­mit­ten­cy of solar ener­gy remains. But in addi­tion to the research being car­ried out on stor­age, Jor­di Badosa agrees with Olivi­er Sala that the future lies in an ener­gy mix that includes solu­tions based on green hydrogen. 

Final­ly, if the ener­gy tran­si­tion is to suc­ceed, “these ener­gies will have to be not only accept­ed but, above all, desired by con­sumers”, con­cludes Olivi­er Sala.

Marina Julienne

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