Energy Transitions past and future

As we begin to come to terms with the serious effects of climate change, it is now more than ever that we must look back into the past to ensure mistakes made in previous generations are not repeated in our current transition period. One such mistake that seems immediately obvious is an over investment in one pathway for transition. For example, while not exactly an energy transition (but nonetheless relevant to sustainability), the change from open sewage system to underground sewage removal in modern cities was a transition that has left us with no easy way to again adapt to changes. In the future if our sewage systems should prove incapable of dealing with novel problems we can of course try to alter it to overcome these challenges, however the heavy investment in infrastructure during the transition period was done in a way that has left us locked into the current sewage system with little possibility of a radical overhaul. While we may not yet be in a position where the sewage system requires a radical overhaul, the same cannot be said for our energy production and unfortunately, the same “lock-in” effect seems so have taken effect. When society transitioned to a fossil fuel economy little care was taken to ensure the new system was adaptable and versatile. Huge investments were made without pausing to thing about how a complete reliance on fossil fuels could hinder us in the future. Of course, people back then had no idea that the carbon dioxide given off would cause the environmental issues we see today, but the problem I want to highlight is not that they were unaware of future problems but that they did not appear to even consider the possibility of future problems arising.

So, what does this mean for our current energy transition? I think these lessons from the past show us the importance of investing in multiple different energy alternatives and not relying on one single source such as solar or wind to solve our problems. We see in ecological and biological systems alike that diversity increases resilience. With a large array of renewable energy sources powering our future societies, we will be less vulnerable to unforeseen problems. If years later we find out wind turbines are having damaging effects on the Earths air circulation it will not be nearly as challenging if we have a vast array of alternative energy sources ready to fill the energy deficit while we transition once again. Furthermore, transitions in the past show us that while we should design our future energy production systems to survive well into the future we should design them with the knowledge that one day they will change once more. Whether this be changes to make the systems more efficient or changes that ultimately see them dismantled, we need to thing not just about the life of the infrastructure but also its death. Technology is constantly evolving and if something is not made obsolete by technological advancements making it function redundant, then it will soon be superseded by a more advanced and more efficient version of itself.

In the real world there is no silver bullet. A successful energy transition for the future will require innovative and new sources of energy designed to exploit the different environments in which they operate. We should take heed of the mistakes made in the past and never slip into thinking that the solutions for today’s problems will be the solution for the problems in the future.

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5 thoughts on “Energy Transitions past and future”

  1. Learning from the past to act within the present is always good advice when looking for solutions that will be able to stand the test of time. However, in the case of sustainable energy utilzing different forms already seems like a necessity when looking at the ammounts we can produce in total when using options like solar, wind energy etc

    Moreover, how do we make these current solutions futureproof? Can we really develop a system that is adaptable to new circumstances on end.

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    1. yeah man I dont know haha. Maybe we cant make things “future proof” exactly but we can create systems with the knowledge that they will most likely be replaced in the. its really about designing things not just for the “use” phase of their life cycle but also for the time after this when thier function has expired. how will it be taken apart? what will be done with its components?
      We should try to make things sustainable but be realistic and know that nothing lasts forever.

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  2. I agree that it is helpful to look at past transitions and learn from that. However, I do think that we are already combining the different forms of sustainable energy (solar, wind, hydro etc.) when speaking of the transition of the energy system. I also think that it is indeed necessary to consider possible weaker points of a new (energy) system but isn’t it a bit strange to develop a new system and already assuming that it will not last? The idea of moving towards sustainable energy is in my opinion that it, in contrary to fossil fuels, is durable.

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    1. hmm yeah i see what you mean but there’s durable and then there’s like eternally immovable and unchanging. like no matter how sustainable we make things they are gonna either become obsolete or wear out eventually. so we should design things with this in mind. But yeah i kinda agree with you, just defending my initial argument to explore another point of view.

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  3. I agree that it would be a very large and costly process to change the current sewage system. It might not be necessary to change the system just yet, but I think the need for adjustments will grow with time. First of all, the system is always running behind upcoming environmental problems. For example, it cannot remove contaminants like microplastics and pharmaceuticals. With the current system, it is difficult (and if already possible, quite expensive!) to remove those from the wastewater. Also, did you know that urine contains many dissolved nutrients, e.g. nitrogen, potassium and phosphates? According to the WHO, urine will be increasingly used as a crop fertilizer in the future, due to growing freshwater resource depletion. Also, concentrated phosphate resources are finite and becoming depleted. So, a different sewage system that can separate urine or only its nutrients would be a good idea.

    Now on to your main point: I, too, feel it is always a bit risky to rely on solely one solution, as it is hard to account for future problems with it, let alone to even forecast those problems. Next to that, for instance, the solar activity and wind speeds on a location vary per minute, hour, day and season, and this does not always meet the human demand pattern. As Floor says, man often tries to combine different renewable energy technologies, but I do not know if this has to do with fear for future problems or with this temporal variability and perhaps the suitability of locations for these technologies. Finally, I definitely agree that we should not only rely on past experiences for solving future problems.

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