Pale eoliche

The formula of the new paradigm

The evolution of energy production systems towards sustainable models must go hand in hand with progress in terms of sources and technologies.

by Giuseppe Sammarco
5 min read
by Giuseppe Sammarco
5 min read

What is energy transition and what does it entail? It is important to start by addressing this subject, as it will allow us to become familiar with the mechanisms, logical connections, as well as the technological constraints and other boundaries that govern the process of changing the energy system and that determine its direction and pace.

The energy transition is a process that has accompanied human history since its inception and has enabled the development and progress of human civilization. We will outline the features of energy transition to understand its meaning.

Its first characteristic is that (at least until now) it is a complex and long-term process, a process that involves human-driven structural changes to the means of energy production and use; these means are often referred to as the "energy paradigm".

The second characteristic is that an energy transition has a major impact on economic development, people’s quality of life, the social structure and the environment. For this reason, in countries which are yet to be negatively affected by the last energy transition – brought about by the first industrial revolution, as we shall address in a later article – where large sections of society do not have access to modern energy sources, the social benefits of their dissemination have enormous potential. In these countries, for example, the mere transition from a candle to electricity would enable the young population to study in optimum conditions and contribute to the progress of the country, overcoming poverty not only for themselves but for the wider population.

Lastly, we should not only think of energy transition as a monolithic process, associated merely with the application of a new technology or the dissemination of a new energy source. Every energy transition is underpinned by "multiple transitions" which interact and fed into each other, involving more than one of the main components of an energy system:

1. primary energy sources (sources found in nature, such as coal, oil and natural gas);

2. machines and technologies for energy conversion (e.g. electric motors, combustion engines, turbines);

3. energy carriers (i.e. forms of energy which – like electricity, gasoline or hydrogen – originate from the processing of primary sources

4. energy services in demand (e.g. heating, cooling, and more recently sustainable mobility).

The drivers of the transition

At this point, assuming that an energy production and consumption system follows – in its growth phase – a specific, stable and consolidated trajectory, pattern or energy paradigm, what can bring about a change of path, and a new phase of transition?

The transition (or rather the "multiple transitions") may be triggered by various drivers, i.e. numerous variables, which when changed, can make the energy system evolve in one direction or another, and at a faster or slower pace, gradually developing into a new energy paradigm. For the sake of simplicity, we have grouped these drivers into four macro-categories:

1. the availability and competitiveness of new primary sources or energy carriers;

2. the availability and competitiveness of new machines for energy conversion (primary forces or primary driving forces);

3. adopting new energy and environmental policies;

4. changing the level and type of energy services demanded by consumers.

Transizioni che interagiscono tra loro

It is important to note that all drivers pivot on the competitiveness of energy sources and technologies which, in the broadest sense, is measured across various aspects: price competitiveness, the quality of services provided and environmental competitiveness. The latter two forms of competitiveness are usually the key focus of the regulatory framework or consumer preferences.

The subject of competitiveness as the main lever of the transition drivers is an important one. Indeed, it demonstrates how research and technological development are key to this process, since they have played – and will increasingly play – a fundamental role in determining the level of all types of competitiveness of energy sources and the driving forces. This also means that, thanks to technological progress, nothing can be taken for granted: solutions which have been put on the shelf or considered obsolete could gain (or regain) competitiveness and come back into play, as could solutions which are currently unthinkable.

As we have seen, transition drivers tell the energy system – with varying intensity and effectiveness – which direction to follow, just as the steering system of a car tells the wheels where the driver wants to go to reach the desired destination. But what influences the driver when deciding to achieve a new goal by turning the wheel? What drives the system to make new sources and technologies available and to change policies or preferences? These are called mega-trends, i.e. the greater forces of change that shape the entire social structure and production system. This is a topic that deserves further analysis and will be discussed in the later sections. 

In conclusion, in this part, we have seen the main features and drivers of an energy transition. We have seen that it is a complex process, which is perhaps not easy to grasp in the abstract.