What is the sustainable energy transition?

The sustainable energy transition – we’re all talking about it, but what does it really mean? Put very simply, it’s the switch from an energy system based on fossil fuels to a low carbon one where energy is generated from renewable sources.

Some 30 years ago, Europe’s energy was powered by large, polluting, fossil fuel-fired power stations built near the main urban areas to allow their power to be delivered easily to where it was most needed. By 2050, roughly 30 years from now, we hope to be at a stage where the EU energy sector is carbon neutral, and we have a competitive, flexible, integrated market, responsive to consumer demands.

We have already come a long way, and the transition is now moving at a significant speed, but there is still a long path ahead.   

The ongoing transformation got under way in the 1980s, as scientists raised concerns about pollution issues, such as acid rain and the ozone layer, and fears of finite energy resources. As we moved towards the new Millennium, the Kyoto Protocol acknowledged at international level the potential threat from rising greenhouse gas emissions. And interest grew in windmills, then solar power and other forms of renewables that have a lower carbon footprint.

Realising the potential of renewable energy – for a cleaner environment, for sustainability and gradually reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels – governments started to support these new technologies. But it wasn’t until 2008, when the EU adopted renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction targets that politicians acknowledged that a revolution had started.

20% of all energy to be renewable by 2020

The EU's Renewable Energy Directive set a binding target for fulfilling 20% of all its energy needs with renewables by 2020 – to be achieved through individual national targets. To reach this, EU countries agreed their own targets ranging from 10% in Malta to 49% in Sweden. Each drew up renewable energy action plans to show how they would meet the target in electricity, heating, cooling and transport.

With this political support and a longer-term perspective for investment, the renewable energy sector has seen phenomenal rates of growth, and the wide-scale roll-out has led to a fall in production costs. Today, many renewables are as competitive as energy generated from fossil fuel or nuclear plants.

Using our energy more efficiently – 20% savings by 2020

In terms of reducing our carbon footprint, a further vital part of the energy transition is the concept of energy efficiency – using less energy to power the same thing. The EU target of a 20% gain in energy efficiency by 2020 is equivalent to turning off roughly 400 power stations. Energy efficient products and services (such as light bulbs, refrigerators) have boomed and consumers are now empowered to make choices that will see their energy consumption fall, helping them to make savings in their energy bills and ultimately protecting the environment.

Setting the framework until 2030

With growing concerns about the importance of limiting global warming, the 2015 Paris Agreement saw near universal consensus on the need to take global action. In order to fulfil these international commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the EU is currently discussing new rules, including updated 2030 targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Called the Clean Energy for All Europeans package, the aim is to set a stable legal framework that will facilitate the necessary public and private investment in the years ahead.

“Energy transition to create 900,000 new jobs and unlock €177 billion in investment per year”

By addressing this at EU level, rather than at national or local level, we set a more level playing field and have the potential to deliver economies of scale. The changes will not only be good for the environment, but also good for jobs and growth. From 2021 the transition is projected to create 900 000 jobs and unlock close to €180 billion in investment per year.[1] This is European added-value.

At the same time, by strengthening consumer rights and providing greater flexibility for individuals to change suppliers (or even produce their own energy), and by encouraging innovation and improved comfort in the home, the new rulebook should ultimately improve people’s quality of life, their health and help reduce everyone’s household bills. After all, the package is called “Clean Energy for All Europeans”.   

Future challenges

While the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy is picking up speed all the time, it still faces significant challenges. These include:  

  • Making it easier for renewable energy to be integrated into the grid.
  • Improving interconnections between Member States in order to avoid outages and ensure security of supply.
  • Facilitating a stable supply of energy at all times, including at times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
  • Moving towards a more market-orientated sector, where price reflects production costs  –  so that consumers can ultimately shift demand to periods when energy is cheapest to produce.
  • Avoiding distortion of these market signals through subsidies – so that investors’ decisions are based on market signals rather than subsidy signals. 
  • Enhancing the energy performance in buildings – knowing that 75% of our building stock is energy inefficient and simple improvements in isolation of walls and windows can make considerable savings.
  • Ensuring that there are more charging points for electric vehicles – or pre-cabling for charging points– as this is one of the key factors slowing the take-up of electric vehicles.

All these issues – and more – are being addressed in the Clean Energy for All Europeans package. But the real success of this new policy framework will depend on how Member States choose to meet these new targets, what further research and innovation can deliver, and how we, as consumers, respond to this new environment.    

With this in mind, the forthcoming EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) provides an excellent forum to discuss the ongoing sustainable energy transition. With a wide range of different events, seminars and exhibitions and participants from all parts of the energy supply chain, EUSEW offers the opportunity to compare progress, highlight innovation and promote best practices, and provide a unique environment for discussion and exchanges.

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You will find out more about the clean energy transition at the forthcoming Policy Conference on 5-7 June in Brussels.