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Energy transition is a significant structural change in an energy system. Historically, these changes have been driven by the demand for and availability of different fuels. Energy transitions can also result from depletion of energy sources, for example whale oil for illumination and wood for iron smelting in Europe. The current transition to renewable energy, and perhaps other types of sustainable energy, differs as it is largely driven by a recognition that global carbon emissions must be brought to zero, and since fossil fuels are the largest single source of carbon emissions, the quantity of fossil fuels that can be produced is limited by the COP21 Paris Agreement of 2015 to keep global warming below 1.5 °C. In recent years, the term energy transition has been coined in the framework of a move towards sustainability through increased integration of renewable energy in the realm of daily life.
An example of transition toward sustainable energy is the shift by Germany (Energiewende) and Switzerland, to decentralized renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Although so far these shifts have been replacing nuclear energy, their declared goal was the coal phase-out, reducing non-renewable energy sources and the creation of an energy system based on 60% renewable energy by 2050. As of 2018, the 2030 coalition goals are to achieve 65% renewables in electricity production until 2030 in Germany. Another such example is the drive to transition from internal combustion engine powered vehicles to electric vehicles as a way to reduce the global reliance on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This transition in particular however has begun to stimulate debate considering it requires a tenfold increase in mineral extraction and therefore will lead to an increase of the mining processes themselves and of the associated environmental and societal impacts. A potential solution that has arisen for this energy transition dilemma is to explore collection of minerals from new sources like polymetallic nodules lying on the seabed. Ongoing research is exploring this as a way to facilitate the energy transition in a more sustainable manner.
Defining the term "energy transition"
An "energy transition" designates a significant change for an energy system that could be related to one or a combination of resource use, system structure, scale, economics, end use behaviour and energy policy. An 'energy transition' is usefully defined as a change in the state of an energy system as opposed to a change in an individual energy technology or fuel source. A prime example is the change from a pre-industrial system relying on traditional biomass and other renewable power sources (wind, water, and muscle power) to an industrial system characterized by pervasive mechanization (steam power) and the use of coal. Market shares reaching pre-specified thresholds are typically used to characterize the speed of transition (e.g. coal versus traditional biomass) and typical market share thresholds in the literature are 1%, 10% for the initial shares and 50%, 90% and 99% for outcome shares following a transition.
However, since the adoption of the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, the Energy Transition to Net Zero Carbon is defined as the downshift of fossil fuel production to stay within the carbon emissions budget to limit global warming to less than 1.5 °C. The term "Net Zero" includes recognition that some atmospheric CO2 is sequestered in the growth of plants and animals, and that this natural sequestration could be enhanced through soil conservation, reforestation and protection of peatland, wetland and marine environments.
The term 'energy transition' could also encompasses a reorientation of policy and this is often the case in public debate about energy policy. For example, this could imply a rebalance of demand to supply and a shift from centralized to distributed generation (for example, producing heat and power in very small cogeneration units), which should replace overproduction and avoidable energy consumption with energy-saving measures and increased efficiency. In a broader sense the energy transition could also entail a democratization of energy or a move towards increased sustainability.
Public and academic debates on ‘energy transition’ and its policy implications increasingly take Co-benefits of climate change mitigation into account. Co-benefits describe the positive side-effects that occur from an energy transition and can be defined as: “simultaneously meeting several interests or objectives resulting from a political intervention, private sector investment or a mix thereof. Opportunistic co-benefits appear as auxiliary or side effect while focusing on a central objective or interest. Strategic co-benefits result from a deliberate effort to seizing several opportunities (e.g., economic, business, social, environmental) with a single purposeful intervention.”  Especially the deployment of renewable energies can have positive socio-economic effects on employment, industrial development, health and energy access. Depending on the country and the deployment scenario, replacing coal power plants with renewable energy can more than double the number of jobs per average MW capacity. In non-electrified rural areas, the deployment of solar mini-grids can significantly improve electricity access. Additionally, the replacement of coal-based energy with renewables can lower the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution and reduce health costs.
Historic energy transitions are most broadly described by Vaclav Smil. Contemporary energy transitions differ in terms of motivation and objectives, drivers and governance. The layout of the world's energy systems has changed significantly over time. Until the 1950s, the economic mechanism behind energy systems was local rather than global. As development progressed, different national systems became more and more integrated becoming the large, international systems seen today. Historical transition rates of energy systems have been extensively studied. While historical energy transitions were generally protracted affairs, unfolding over many decades, this does not necessarily hold true for the present energy transition, which is unfolding under very different policy and technological conditions.
For current energy systems, many lessons can be learned from history. The need for large amounts of firewood in early industrial processes in combination with prohibitive costs for overland transportation led to a scarcity of accessible (e.g. affordable) wood and it has been found that eighteenth century glass-works “operated like a forest clearing enterprise. When Britain had to resort to coal after largely having run out of wood, the resulting fuel crisis triggered a chain of events that two centuries later culminated in the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, increased use of peat and coal was vital elements paving the way for the Dutch Golden Age roughly spanning the entire 17th century. Another example where resource depletion triggered technological innovation and a shift to new energy sources in 19th Century whaling and how whale oil eventually became replaced by kerosene and other petroleum-derived products. With the success of a rapid energy transition it is also conceivable that there will be government buyouts or bailouts of coal mining regions.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Energy transition.|
- energytransition: about (German and world-wide) Energytransition (and Wiki about German Energiewende)
- Visual Capitalist, 31 October 2018, Iman Gosh, visualcapitalist.com: Visualizing the Global Transition to Green Energy