The notion of an ‘energy transition’ is nothing new. In the past, it has been applied to seismic changes such as the rise of the internal combustion engine and the large-scale use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. But few could argue that the current energy transition – which calls for the creation of a zero-carbon energy sector by 2050 – is by some distance the most ambitious yet.
The use of renewables has been rising steadily since the 1990s, but has been given sharper focus with initiatives such as the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015. With the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) indicating that renewable energy and energy efficiency measures could achieve 90% of the required carbon reductions (1), a complete move away from fossil fuels is essential.
Evidently, a change this profound is going to require action on multiple fronts. IRENA acknowledges this by outlining a vision of energy transition that will be enabled by information technology, smart technology, policy frameworks and market instruments. In terms of action plans, this will mean intense activity around three ‘pillars’: power sector transformation knowledge; energy system models and data; and energy planning support.
IRENA makes it clear that innovation will be fundamental to delivering change in all areas. For instance, with the renewables market bound to be more diverse than the one it replaces, technologies will have to offer maximum flexibility. This applies to the generation and distribution of electricity, with the rise of the electric car worldwide bound to have an impact on demand. Hence the grids and infrastructure that underpin the delivery of electricity will have to be robust and responsive.
A continued focus on developing new smart building technologies will also be essential. Operational emissions from energy used to heat, cool and light buildings currently account for 28% of all carbon emissions in the world (2). There’s no doubt that we have made real progress in this area over the last ten years. Sensor-linked heating and lighting systems have led to major reductions in energy usage across industry. Networked control systems are also helping as they allow users to track consumption and identify other opportunities to save energy.
Still, a lot more innovation is going to be necessary to get us across that net zero line. In many ways, here at Priva’s Lab for Innovation (Lin) we are part of the solution. Effectively an incubator for new smart building innovation, the Lab’s suite of technologies will help organizations to play their part in the energy transition. This will work both on the level of choosing technologies that allow them to reduce consumption, while also ensuring continuity of supply from a host of green, renewable sources.
Eminent Professor of environmental science at Pennsylvania State University Brian C. Black observes that “human energy use has transitioned more or less constantly since we developed the ability to control fire” (3). This time the stakes are significantly higher - namely, the survival of Earth as an inhabitable planet. Only through the combination of innovation and cooperation do we stand a chance of the present energy transition being a success. Our intention is for Lin to be a real enabler of that change as more and more companies focus on decarbonization.