Videos: How can we make energy sustainable?

Three experts talk about the future of energy generation and use

We rely on energy for nearly all our needs, from electricity and heat to the food we eat. About half this energy is used for industrial processes, a quarter for transport and a quarter for domestic use. Yet, most of this energy is generated by sources that are not sustainable in the long-term.

Despite the push to develop renewable sources of energy, we’re still reliant on fossil fuels for the vast majority of our energy needs. The renewable share of generation was 22 percent in 2013 and is projected to reach 26 percent by 2020, according to a 2015 report by OECD’s International Energy Agency.

Scientists in a wide range of fields are working on how the world can develop a more sustainable and, some might say, equitable energy system. The trends are revealed in a recent report by Elsevier and – Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape – released in conjunction with a historic occasion at the United Nations: the adoption of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in September.

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Trends in sustainability science are analyzed in this report by Elsevier and, released on the eve the UN adopted its Sustainable Development Goals.

<em>Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape</em> is being released on the eve of the UN's Sustainability Summit.

Science, technology and innovation have long been recognized as the basis for socioeconomic development; they are also core contributors to sustainable development and meeting the SDGs. The UN has called for a “seat for science” on the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development to ensure that “science is not just an observer but an advisor to policymakers.” This report is part of a broader ongoing effort to provide more evidence and analysis on the role of science, technology and innovation in the global agenda of sustainable development. To identify trends and opportunities in this emerging field, known as “sustainability science,” Elsevier drew on its analytical capabilities to present a report and organize an expert panel.

The overarching goal of the SDGs is "to stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet, such as the "elimination of poverty, hunger, disease and want." One of them – SDG 7 – aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

Many challenges – social, cultural, technical and economic – need to be overcome in order to achieve this. In the first installment of The Energy Sessions video series, we asked three esteemed energy experts to share their thoughts on how Goal 7 can be achieved, from engineering and socioeconomic viewpoints.

Social and behavioral dimensions

Dr. Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex and Director of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand and Editor-in-Chief of Energy Research & Social Science, believes the social and behavioral dimensions of energy use will have an impact on how we approach access to energy in future:

You might be quite shocked to realize that something like 1.6 billion people around the world have no access to electricity and more than twice that depend on wood or coal or solid fuel for cooking. … These lives are very, very different, and that’s why I think this goal of universal energy access might be the most important of them all.

In this interview, Dr. Sovacool talks about gender issues in energy. Because women carry out most of the activities that require energy, he says, they suffer most from the indoor air pollution associated with cook stoves – the fourth biggest four killer in the world, on par with HIV/AIDS. He points to the technical push to develop better, cleaner cook stoves, saying, “Energy use in the developing world can quite literally kill you.”

He also outlines the three main sources of energy: the grid, off-grid systems and micro or mini grids – sources that range from a $15 cook stove to a $200 billion grid. The best options for energy generation depend on location: hydropower is highly efficient, but if you’re in the Gobi desert, solar power is a more suitable option, he says.

Dr. Sovacool concludes that top down approaches don’t work. It’s polycentric systems – mixing the scales and actors at different levels – that hold the key to sustainable energy in the future.

Decarbonizing the system

Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, says decarbonizing the energy system might be challenging, but it’s the only way to achieve sustainable energy in the future:

Decarbonizing the energy system will take time, so we need to get on with it. If we’re not optimistic, we certainly won’t get on with it and we won’t succeed.

He explains that global energy use is expected to increase by 35 percent in the next two decades. But the problem is that more than 80 percent of our primary energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Our fossil fuel resources are depleting; we have an estimated 100 years of oil and gas and 10,000 of coal remaining.

That’s not the only issue: the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels is literally killing us; the World Health Organization says air pollution is responsible for 12 percent of all deaths worldwide. Breathing the air in Delhi is the equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, Sir Llewellyn Smith says.

Researchers have been working to reduce our energy use by making it more efficient, and improvements in technology have decreased the intensity of our energy use by 1 percent a year in recent years. But this isn’t enough, Sir Llewellyn Smith says; we need to decarbonize the whole system and replace our hydrocarbon energy sources with renewable ones.

He talks about wind and solar power, biomass, hydropower and nuclear power, pointing out that we have many challenges to overcome – including public opinion – to make these energy sources more widely used.

Surprising new ideas

Dr. Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and professor of Materials Physics at Imperial College London and a board member of the journal Solid State Ionics, says we’ll achieve SDG7 through a systems engineering approach that’s culturally sensitive. The new ideas we develop to make energy more accessible and sustainable may not be the ones we set out to find, he explains:

I’m a research scientist and engineer. … I want to discover new ways of thinking about energy generating systems. When I do research, I don’t expect necessarily the answer I thought I’d get in the first place. It’s really exciting, but it’s uncertain. The way we look at Sustainable Development Goal 7 will be similar. … Hopefully we’ll find even better solutions we weren’t expecting.

For Dr. Grimes, the goal is about being smarter with energy. The way we produce and use energy depends on our situation and location, but he says that doesn’t mean ideas are not transferrable; in fact, we need to be sharing technologies, talking about them and making sure they’re culturally and socially acceptable in different contexts.

Take energy efficiency, for example. Dr. Grimes points out that in the UK, everyone is installing double or even triple glazing and thinking about insulating their lofts. While that doesn’t mean the approaches transfer to a developing country, where people may be more interested in staying cool, it doesn’t mean the ideas can’t be discussed.

Another important discussion, he says, is the use of fossil fuels in developing countries. For the last 180 years, developed economies have been dependent on hydrocarbons – and they still are. What’s more, developing countries are using them more and more to support development and industry, and it won’t be possible to stop using them overnight. But it would be worthwhile to consider more effective ways of using hydrocarbons, he says.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to support global development over the next 15 years that are based on five themes: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Clare Lehane, PhDClare Lehane joined Elsevier in 2006 after completing a PhD in marine ecology at University College Cork Ireland. She is the publisher for the Energy and Nuclear Portfolio, and her current goal is to get below 23 minutes for a 5K run – tips welcome!

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