Interview & Opinion

Will we make the energy transition happen?

We are on our way to a climate-neutral society. But are we going to make it? Not if we continue haggling about details, says Michael Ornetzeder in his contribution. In order not to miss this historic opportunity we need compromise and broad-based dialogue – right now. Source: Shutterstock

Our energy system is in a state of upheaval. Even before the current energy crisis we knew that the enormous dependence on fossil fuels had to be drastically reduced. The Austrian federal government is pursuing the ambitious goal of making Austria climate-neutral by 2040. The associated move away from coal, oil and gas and the massive expansion of solar, wind and hydropower will have a considerable economic and social impact. In the coming decades we will need not only knowledge related to action and orientation, but also a flanking process of scientific reflection.

The radical transformation of our energy supply is no simple matter. We will not be able to achieve very much with isolated measures, however well-intentioned. The issue of energy transition clearly reveals how complex and interwoven the necessary changes are. In science, we speak of transition when societies change from one state to another. While there are historical examples, attempts were rare to pursue the planned development of existing complex socio-technical systems, i.e. society and its technologies, towards a new goal. In many ways we are entering uncharted territory.

Joint show of strength for a new era

If energy transition is to be successful and lead to a largely climate-neutral society, the undertaking hinges on many simultaneous, mutually complementary changes. Such changes are of a comprehensively socio-technical nature, involving not only the development and application of new technologies and infrastructures, but also changing values, social practices and new forms of economic activity. If taken seriously, energy transition affects all areas of life, and many forward-looking solutions must be cross-sectoral i.e. by integrating different forms of energy, areas of application and economic activities as sensibly as possible, to achieve the desired effect. Consequently, the existing systems must be challenged and changed, and novel solutions must be conceived and translated into reality. Potentially, the whole of society is involved in this process.

If taken seriously, energy transition affects all areas of life.

Michael Ornetzeder

So what, in concrete terms, do conversion plans foresee in Austria – to the extent that may be discernible today? In order to achieve the national decarbonisation goals, the electricity sector in particular is to be restructured by 2030 so as to cover up to 100% of total electricity needs from renewable energy sources on a national balance basis, meaning that fluctuations will continue to be compensated for by electricity imports or conventional power plants. And in 2040, only ten years later, all economic sectors in Austria are to be climate-neutral.

High technical demands

Accordingly, the expansion targets for the generation of electricity from renewable sources, already laid down in laws, are enormous. The Renewable Energy Expansion Act of 2021 contains the first specific targets for the renewable energy sources available in Austria. The Act provides that “the annual electricity generation from renewable sources is to be increased by 27 TWh (terawatt hours)” by 2030, of which “11 TWh from photovoltaics, 10 TWh from wind power, 5 TWh from hydropower and 1 TWh from biomass”. This means that electricity generation from renewable sources is to be increased by a factor of 1.5 in just about ten years.

Achieving this goal requires full use of all available options.

Michael Ornetzeder

Photovoltaics (PV) is the renewable energy generation system scheduled for the most pronounced expansion. Plans are to increase the annual generation from solar energy from currently 2 TWh to 13 TWh within only eight years. Achieving this goal requires full use of all available options. In addition to systems integrated in buildings and systems on traffic surfaces, it will be necessary to realise larger-scale free-standing systems, for example in combination with agricultural use. In order to achieve the ambitious expansion targets and to keep additional investments in the infrastructure low, it is also very important to distribute the decentralised generation plants as evenly as possible.

Far-reaching changes in energy supply

The expansion of generation capacities also requires the adaptation and expansion of the grid infrastructure. Investments in the expansion of high-voltage lines for cross-border electricity trading in Europe are also partly linked to energy transition. Furthermore, the distribution grids that deliver electricity to consumers must also be developed in a way as to allow for the integration of a large number of decentralised generation plants. This can be done with investments in hardware and software, but also with non-technical measures. Distribution grids will probably use a higher degree of digitalised solutions (smart grids).

Electricity demand will rise enormously

In parallel to the changes in the electricity sector, all other sectors, such as heat supply, industrial production or transport, are to be gradually decarbonised and coupled closer with the electricity sector. The coupling of sectors makes it possible to avoid power generation on the basis of coal, oil and natural gas, and supports the shift to renewable electricity. At the same time, the resulting overall system is much more efficient and has a significantly lower demand of primary energy. However, this also means additional consumption of electricity from renewable sources, for example for the operation of e-vehicles or heat pumps. Estimates for Austria assume that the final energy demand for electricity in 2050 could reach twice the level of today.

Finding majority solutions

Ideas and knowledge are available, but the social debate is fragmented and confusing.

Michael Ornetzeder

Climate and energy policy brings together many players with different interests. Of immense importance in nearly all areas of life, energy is a central issue for the whole of society. In the wake of energy transition, opportunities and risks are being redistributed. Established corporations and industries worry about losing market shares. Newcomers and start-ups see potential for growth. Old and new interest groups are making their positions known. NGOs and the scientific community criticise the policy plans, demand more radical measures and develop the necessary know-how. Ideas and knowledge are available, but the social debate is fragmented and confusing. What has been lacking so far, however, is a broad, consistent discourse.

In this situation, science should not only provide society with knowledge related to action and orientation, but also with critical scientific reflection. As the process of energy transition progresses, new questions will arise, for example about the interactions of individual measures or about unintended consequences and risks of new technologies, infrastructures or behaviour. In the future, we will also have to give more attention to the positive and negative impacts on individual groups in society that come in the wake of fundamental change. It is already foreseeable that there will not only be winners and losers, but also massive resistance to the upcoming changes. Science, but also research funding, must jointly embark on new routes in the future.

Role model “Agora Energiewende”

We need new venues that permanently focus on energy transition.

Michael Ornetzeder

There is also the question as to whether a successful energy transition process can be managed at all with the existing institutions and political structures. Do we perhaps need new institutional arrangements? Do we need venues, for instance, that permanently focus on energy transition; venues that enable constant reflection, negotiation, observation and development. The German Agora Energiewende could be a model for such a venue. For many years, this institution has acted as a central platform for the development of academically robust and at the same time politically viable strategies and measures for energy transition in the electricity sector. In addition to its scientific work, the Agora also acts as a mediator between politics, interest groups and the public. Its well-founded core statements take the discussion to a factual level. The Agora shows where the problems lie and what measures could be taken, and it provides an outlook on where the journey could take us. Such an “agora”, a place of assembly for people to develop knowledge and political positions, could also bring a new quality to the energy transition in Austria. It would definitely be worth a try.

Michael Ornetzeder is a project manager at the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). Since 2007, he has been representing the ÖAW on the Energy Steering Panel in the context of the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC). His research deals with specific aspects of energy technologies as well as questions relating to the transition process of the energy system. As part of a 1,000 Ideas project funded by the FWF, Ornetzeder and his team are working on a new research approach for the comparative and systematic assessment of intended and unintended effects of innovations in the energy system.

Further reading

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