The energy transition of today and tomorrow

An energy transition, i.e. a significant change in the energy mix, considered most often in a country, is only relevant if it significantly improves one of the expected performances of energy systems and markets: the cost of energy, its availability, the energy independence of the country in question or the environmental impact.

In the current situation, the world urgently needs to reduce its CO2 emissions for which energy systems are highly contributory: this justifies without any doubt that each country commits, from the current situation of its own, in a transition towards a less emitting CO2 energy mix.

The state of the art of energy technologies, particularly solar and wind, also leads to the opportunity, thanks to them, in certain circumstances, to reduce energy costs. But it cannot be considered that these cost reductions justify a transition as swift and radical as the one we need for environmental reasons.

The transition to less carbon emitting mixes implies the conversion of CO2 emitting systems (coal, oil), which are now the majority in the world, to systems emitting little of very little CO2 amounts (solar, wind, nuclear) or systems simply emitting fewer CO2 (gas). It is not certain that the simple conversion to gas-fired plants is sufficient to achieve the objectives and this type of migration is probably to be considered either as a transition stage or when no alternative is available in the short term.

Compared to the urgent goal today of reducing CO2 emissions, substituting nuclear power for solar-generated electricity is meaningless.

An energy transition is not an isolated episode, limited in time. Technological evolutions, new economic, strategic or environmental constraints will allow or will soon require a new stage of energy transition.

Among these possible vectors of a future need for an energy transition, we can list, mixing at this stage opportunities and needs:

  • The emergence of hydrogen that could improve the energy independence of some countries and reduce the environmental impact of energy.
  • The limitation of the consumption of rare metals extensively used by electric vehicles, batteries, wind turbines and photovoltaic panels and whose extraction is highly energy intensive and has very strong impacts on the environment.
  • The need to reduce the use of nuclear power, under the increasing pressure of public opinions, to protect populations against possible new accidents and to reduce nuclear waste whose storage is difficult and contested by residents.

These observations plead for:

  • A clarification of the messages. It is easy to mix and virtuous to distinguish the drivers of an energy transition stage from the benefits that flow from them as well as to distinguish what belongs to a stage and any subsequent ones.
  • The organization of a continuum, of reciprocal links and of a managed complementarity between fundamental research, applied research, industrial R & D and deployment projects. These four activities, more or less contributory to the current stage of the energy transition, more or less anticipating future stages, should not operate in silos but have to feed each other.

We have listed here two major areas of progress, for all countries, for a more successful management of their energy transition.

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