The move to energy sufficiency: a choice or an obligation?

For the sixth event in its Environmental Transition series – due to lockdown, a virtual event – Leonard brought together four contributors to talk about the big question: “Is energy sufficiency a choice or an obligation?” The contributors were Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega, director of Ifri’s Centre for Energy & Climate, Antoine de Broves, technical & innovation manager at Omexom, Stéphane Baly, member of the Compagnie des negaWatt non-profit and adviser on energy for the Lille City Hall, and Benjamin Tincq, co-founder and CEO of Good Tech Lab.

It is now an all-too-familiar statement of fact: our consumption patterns, in combination with linear economy models, do not fit well with the global ecological crisis. For proof, look no further than the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity and the continued widespread use of fossil fuels. As further evidence, access to these constantly dwindling resources has become of strategic importance and led to inequalities and geopolitical tensions.

These are the reasons why, over the past few decades, initiatives have developed to bend the climate change curve towards a trajectory of 1.5C to 2C. To make “energy transition” happen, these initiatives call for a complete overhaul not only of supply models but also of energy demand, and for new thinking on infrastructure and uses. In short, energy transition will not happen simply by more use of renewable energies in the global energy mix, but will also require progress in energy efficiency as well as in energy sufficiency, which encourages individuals and companies to modify their behaviour.

La sobriété énergétique – de gré ou de force ? from Leonard

« Energy efficiency will play a big part »

The European Union has set the ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. To get there, it has to speed up energy transition efforts and reduce final energy consumption in Europe by at least 50% by 2050. This is where energy efficiency can do a lot.

As says Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega, “In reality, energy efficiency is very dilute and relatively invisible; and yet, it’s an essential stage. The problem for our ruling classes is that it’s much easier to put in place supply-side policies and far more complicated to develop demand-side policies, because demand is highly decentralised.”

It is also difficult to accurately assess what demand will be in 2050. On this point, energy efficiency is essential because it encourages the production system to get sizing right, thereby limiting the risks of under- or overinvestment in power generation capacity and transmission and distribution networks. The same goes for energy storage because these very costly technologies will gain from optimisation.

Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega emphasises that although “since 1990 the EU has saved the equivalent of Germany’s annual energy consumption through energy efficiency policies, it will be necessary to do a lot more in coming years and to double investment and efforts” in transport especially, but also in buildings.

The technologies supporting transition

Efforts and investments both focus mainly on three levers. The first consists in stimulating diversification of low-carbon energy sources and their widespread use. Benjamin Tincq, author of Leonard’s Emerging Trend study on CleanTech, points out: “Although renewables – except for hydropower – are still in the minority, their development seems close to a turning point. The cost of wind power and, above all, of solar photovoltaic has fallen dramatically over the past 10 years. Installed capacity is on an exponential curve, which gives a glimpse of an acceleration in deployment over the next 10 years, especially in regions where the electricity mix is still very high in carbon.”

These are strategic innovations for low-carbon energy production in a context where, as Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega reminds us, “geo-economic rivalry between the United States, China and the EU is rife in low-carbon technologies at a point in time where the Chinese are the undisputed champions in the deployment of solar and onshore wind and the Europeans in offshore wind and, soon, even in floating offshore wind”.

The two other technological levers of energy transition are energy storage and network flexibility to handle wind and solar intermittency, and also to adapt supply more efficiently to demand variability. There are numerous advances in this field: thermal, mechanical & chemical energy storage (TMCES) for extended periods; new generation batteries; and Grid Edge super capacitors and solutions that are turning the idea of a decentralised, distributed and transactional electricity grid into a reality.

This momentum is palpable at solution integrators like Omexom, who are working in an increasingly dynamic market. Questioned on this point, Antoine de Broves underlined the increasing use of Energy Management Systems: “Right in line with the subject of energy efficiency, our services enable customers to use greener energy as long as the electricity system is able to manage this type of consumption.” To make that possible, Omexom offers a turnkey service including a design study and optimisation solution that can cover a neighbourhood, a local government area, or a zone undergoing electrification. The solution will be based on judging correctly the amount of renewable energy to be incorporated, the introduction of storage technologies to handle intermittency, the improvement and management of systems to reduce consumption and, lastly, optimisation of the various technical building blocks.

On the demand side, what role can energy sufficiency play?

Stéphane Baly emphasises: “To reduce energy demand, energy efficiency, which means reducing the amount of energy required for any given purpose, and energy sufficiency, which means putting the priority on essential energy needs, are completely complementary. These two levers let us exploit the full potential of energy use reduction.” The message is clear: rather than opposing these two notions, energy transition must be served by exploring their complementarities.

In terms of energy, “sufficiency” is an all-embracing term that applies as much to use by individuals as to that of entire regions. It means getting energy supply right, using as little energy as possible, and working together to change behaviour and encourage appropriate sizing of infrastructure and systems, as well as their level and duration of use and operation. It also requires developing collective organisation and pooling of spaces.

“Here, we’re moving away from the framework of engineering and relying on technologies alone, because societies that are engaging in sufficiency are attempting to modify social norms, individual needs, and even their idea of collective life to find ways of reducing energy use in a voluntary, organised fashion,” says Stéphane Baly. These are deep-seated changes that, for the most part, will be instituted by collective choices at the national level, but also by local government authorities and companies. To conclude, Stéphane Baly says: “At the moment, we see sufficiency as something that is imposed on us. But the reality is, it’s precarity that is imposed and often prevents moving towards voluntary sufficiency. In the Lille area, for example, a third of households are in the situation of fuel poverty and, when it comes to this, the question of energy use injustice cannot be ignored.

That’s something to think about.

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