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A billboard highlights a corporate social responsibility conference and awards meeting in Denmark. (Photograph courtesy Dan Kammen)

What Does an ‘Energy Transition’ Look Like?

Everyone who works on energy futures – myself included – spends a great deal of time envisioning and then evaluating the scientific, technical, policy, and behavioral factors needed to initiate and sustain these shifts.

We recently completed a study of what it would take in western North America to expand the deployment of solar power from its current level of less than 1 percent of electricity to one third of total electricity supply by 2050. In an earlier study, we examined what it would take on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua to develop a sustainable renewable-energy dominated energy grid for several rural communities.  In yet another project, we examined the ability for the Malaysian state of Sabah to choose a low-carbon path instead of a coal-dominated future.

At the national, regional, and global level, energy transitions are all the rage.  The European Climate Foundation has released studies of entirely decarbonizing the European Union by 2050, while my laboratory has examined complete and near-complete decarbonization pathways for western North America, China, and Chile by 2050.  And the Trottier Foundation has compiled a wonderful report on low- and zero-carbon futures at the national level.

These studies are vital to understand the opportunities, barriers, and the costs as well as benefits of pushing for these major changes in our energy system. These studies typically look forward to 2020, 2030, or 2050.

But what do these transitions look like on the ground?

Earlier this week I saw a transition, and, well, it was pretty.

I was speaking at a conference on corporate social responsibility near Karup, Denmark.

Following the meeting, I needed to fly to a meeting of Arctic experts in London sponsored by National Geographic and Shell as part of the Great Energy Challenge. To get there I flew out of Billund, in southern Denmark, 90 kilometers (55 miles) away.

To get to Billund, we drove in a Tesla S-class sedan, and spent the drive not just marveling at the range and performance of this particular electric vehicle, but also the myriad of new electric cars on the market, from Coda, BYD, Fisker, and also from older automakers such as Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, Renault, and others.

We marveled over the incredible electronic display in the car where the web interface is so good that stopping the car to check email, surf the web, even work on projects online is a very real option today.

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The Tesla S-class sedan is the test car for a new company, tuxi, that will provide zero-emission vehicle rentals for members of collectives that adopt low-carbon practices as part of an overall lifestyle change.
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The Tesla’s display shows route and restaurant options on the trip ahead.

The many business options for low-carbon transport as part of healthy, low-carbon lifestyles was a great start in looking at how the cleantech sector can create jobs.

Along the way we passed the Siemens plant where wind-turbines are being manufactured for off-shore farms. Below is a shot of the wind turbine plant, and the windmill installed there to power parts of the facility, taken through the window of the EV we were driving.

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View of the Siemens plant where large wind turbines for offshore deployment are manufactured in southern Denmark.

Finally, flying from Billund to London City airport, we passed over the new London off-shore wind farm.

“This is a great day for Britain and a big win for renewable energy,” U.K. Prime Minister Cameron said at the opening ceremony of the wind farm this past July. “The London Array shows you can build large-scale renewable energy projects right here in Britain. This is because when it comes to clean energy, the U.K. has one of the clearest investment climates globally.”

The project is owned by Denmark’s DONG Energy, Germany’s E.ON and the Masdar Group of Abu Dhabi. The farm has a capacity of 630 megawatts, enough to power 470,000 homes, and has been fully operational since April. The consortium predicts that the wind farm will save 925,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

All in all it was a day of travel witnessing, and fuelled by, the use and construction of the clean energy economy.

Now, we need those low-carbon airline fuels, and even better, an improved capacity to travel virtually to meetings, cutting our resource footprints and improving services still further.

This trip highlighted to me the reality of dramatic energy transitions.  What energy transitions—clean and not so clean—are you seeing around you today? Please comment below with your observations.