Energy transition

Energy transition is generally defined as a long-term structural change in energy systems.[1] These have occurred in the past, and still occur worldwide. Historic energy transitions are most broadly described by Vaclav Smil.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

Solving the global warming problem is regarded as the most important challenge facing humankind in the 21st century.[6] The capacity of the earth system to absorb greenhouse gas emissions is already exhausted, and under the Paris climate agreement, emissions must cease by 2040 or 2050.[7] Barring a breakthrough in carbon sequestration technologies, this requires an energy transition away from fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, lignite, and coal. This energy transition is also known as the decarbonization of the energy system or "energy turnaround". Available technologies are nuclear power (fission) and the renewable energy sources wind, hydropower, solar power, geothermal, and marine energy.

A timely implementation of the energy transition requires multiple approaches in parallel. Energy conservation and improvements in energy efficiency thus play a major role. Smart electric meters can schedule energy consumption for times when electricity is abundant, reducing consumption at times when the more variable renewable energy sources are scarce (night time and lack of wind).

Despite the widespread understanding that a transition to renewable energy is necessary, there are a number of risks and barriers to making renewable energy more appealing than conventional energy. Renewable energy rarely comes up as a solution beyond combating climate change, but has wider implications for food security and employment.[8] This further supports the recognized dearth of research for clean energy innovations, which may lead to quicker transitions.[9] Overall, the transition to renewable energy requires a shift among governments, business, and the public. Altering public bias may mitigate the risk of subsequent administrations de-transitioning - through perhaps public awareness campaigns or carbon levies.[10]

After a transitional period, renewable energy production is expected to make up most of the world's energy production. The risk management firm, DNV GL, forecasts that, by 2050, the world's primary energy mix will be split equally between fossil and non-fossil sources.[11]

A 2011 projection by the International Energy Agency expects solar PV to supply more than half of the world's electricity by 2060, dramatically reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.[12]

An example of transition toward sustainable energy, is the shift by Germany (German: Energiewende) and Switzerland,[13] to decentralised renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Although so far these shifts have been replacing nuclear energy, their declared goal 2012 was the abolishment of coal, reducing non-renewable energy sources[14] and the creation of an energy system based on 60% renewable energy by 2050.[15] As of 2018, the 2030 coalition goals are to achieve 65% renewables in electricity production until 2030 in Germany.[16]

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 system structure, scale, economics, 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.[17] 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.[18]

For energy systems, many lessons can be learned from history.[19][20] 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.[21] 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.[22][23] Similarly, increased use of peat and coal was vital elements paving the way for the Dutch Golden Age roughly spanning the entire 17th century.[24] 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.[25]

Technology has been identified as an important but difficult-to-predict driver of change within energy systems.[26] Published forecasts have systematically tended to overestimate the potential of new energy and conversion technologies and underestimated the inertia in energy systems and energy infrastructure (e.g. power plants, once built, characteristically operate for many decades). The history of large technical systems is very useful for enriching debates about energy infrastructures by detailing many of their long-term implications.[27] The speed at which a transition in the energy sector needs to take place will be historically rapid.[28] Moreover, the underlying technological, political, and economic structures will need to change radically — a process one author calls regime shift.[29]

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[30] or a move towards increased sustainability.

In June 2018, at their G20 Summit in Argentina, the G20 Energy Ministers ‘welcome(d) the approach of Argentina’s G20 Presidency, which recognises that there are different possible national paths to achieve cleaner energy systems - while promoting sustainability, resilience and energy security - under the term “transitions” (in plural). This view reflects the fact that each G20 member - according to its stage of development - has a unique and diverse energy system as starting point, with different energy resources, demand dynamics, technologies, stock of capital, geographies and cultures.[31]

Status in specific countries


Australia has one of the fastest deployment rates of renewable energy worldwide. The country has deployed 5.2GW of solar and wind power in 2018 alone and at this rate, is on track to reach 50% renewable electricity in 2024 and 100% in 2032.[32] However, Australia may be one of the leading major economies in terms of renewable deployments, but it is one of the least prepared at a network level to make this transition, being ranked 28th out of the list of 32 advanced economies on the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Energy Transition Index.[33]


Austria embarked on its energy transition (Energiewende) some decades ago. Due to geographical conditions, energy production in Austria relies heavily on renewable energies, notably hydropower. 78.4% of domestic production in 2013 came from renewable energy, 9.2% from natural gas and 7.2% from petroleum. (rest: waste). On the basis of the Federal Constitutional Law for a Nuclear-Free Austria, no nuclear power stations are in operation in Austria. But domestic energy production makes up only 36% of Austria's total energy consumption, which among other things encompasses transport, electricity production, and heating. In 2013, oil accounts for about 36.2% of total energy consumption, renewable energies 29.8%, gas 20.6%, and coal 9.7%. In the past 20 years, the structure of gross domestic energy consumption has shifted from coal and oil to new renewables, in particular between 2005 and 2013 (plus 60%). The EU target for Austria require a renewables share of 34% by 2020 (gross final energy consumption). Austria is on a good way to achieve this target (32.5% in 2013). Energy transition in Austria can be also seen on the local level, in some villages, towns and regions. For example, the town of Güssing in the state of Burgenland is a pioneer in independent and sustainable energy production. Since 2005, Güssing has already produced significantly more heating (58 gigawatt hours) and electricity (14 GWh) from renewable resources than the city itself needs.[34]


Denmark, as a country reliant on imported oil, was impacted particularly hard by the 1973 oil crisis. This roused public discussions on building nuclear power stations to diversify energy supply. A strong anti-nuclear movement developed, which fiercely criticized nuclear power plans taken up by the government,[35] and this ultimately led to a 1985 resolution not to build any nuclear power stations in Denmark.[36] The country instead opted for renewable energy, focusing primarily on wind power. Wind turbines for power generation already had a long history in Denmark, as far back as the late 1800s. As early as 1974 a panel of experts declared "that it should be possible to satisfy 10% of Danish electricity demand with wind power, without causing special technical problems for the public grid."[37] Denmark undertook the development of large wind power stations — though at first with little success (like with the Growian project in Germany).

Small facilities prevailed instead, often sold to private owners such as farms. Government policies promoted their construction; at the same time, positive geographical factors favored their spread, such as good wind power density and Denmark's decentralized patterns of settlement. A lack of administrative obstacles also played a role. Small and robust systems came on line, at first in the power range of only 50-60 kilowatts — using 1940s technology and sometimes hand-crafted by very small businesses. In the late seventies and the eighties a brisk export trade to the United States developed, where wind energy also experienced an early boom. In 1986 Denmark already had about 1200 wind power turbines,[38] though they still accounted for just barely 1% of Denmark's electricity.[39] This share increased significantly over time. In 2011, renewable energies covered 41% of electricity consumption, and wind power facilities alone accounted for 28%.[40] The government aims to increase wind energy's share of power generation to 50% by 2020, while at the same time reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 40%.[41] On 22 March 2012, the Danish Ministry of Climate, Energy and Building published a four-page paper titled "DK Energy Agreement," outlining long-term principles for Danish energy policy.[42]

The installation of oil and gas heating is banned in newly constructed buildings from the start of 2013; beginning in 2016 this will also apply to existing buildings. At the same time an assistance program for heater replacement was launched. Denmark's goal is to reduce the use of fossil fuels 33% by 2020. The country is scheduled to attain complete independence from petroleum and natural gas by 2050.[43]


Since 2012, political discussions have been developing in France about the energy transition and how the French economy might profit from it.[44]

In September 2012, Minister of the Environment Delphine Batho coined the term "ecological patriotism." The government began a work plan to consider starting the energy transition in France. This plan should address the following questions by June 2013:[45]

  • How can France move towards energy efficiency and energy conservation? Reflections on altered lifestyles, changes in production, consumption, and transport.
  • How to achieve the energy mix targeted for 2025? France's climate protection targets call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030, and 60% by 2040.
  • Which renewable energies should France rely on? How should the use of wind and solar energy can be promoted?
  • What costs and funding models will likely be required for alternative energy consulting and investment support? And how about for research, renovation, and expansion of district heating, biomass, and geothermal energy? One solution could be a continuation of the CSPE, a tax that is charged on electricity bills.

The Environmental Conference on Sustainable Development on 14 and 15 September 2012 treated the issue of the environmental and energy transition as its main theme.[46]

On 8 July 2013, the national debate leaders submits some proposals to the government. Among them, there were environmental taxation, and smart grid development.[47]

In 2015, the National Assembly has adopted legislation for the transition to low emission vehicles.[48]

France is second only to Denmark as having the worlds lowest carbon emissions in relation to gross domestic product.[49]


The key policy document outlining the Energiewende was published by the German government in September 2010, some six months before the Fukushima nuclear accident.[51] Legislative support was passed in September 2010. Important aspects include:

Key Energiewende policy targets (with actual figures for 2014)[52]:4
Greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions (base year 1990) −27.0%−40%−55%−70%−80 to −95%
Renewable energy
Share of gross final energy consumption 13.5%18%30%45%60%
Share of gross electricity consumption 27.4%35%50%65%80%
Efficiency and consumption
Primary energy consumption (base year 2008) −8.7%−20%−50%
Gross electricity consumption (base year 2008) −4.6%−10%−25%
Final energy consumption in transport (base year 2005) 1.7%−10%−40%

In addition, there will be an associated research and development drive.

The policy has been embraced by the German federal government and has resulted in a huge expansion of renewables, particularly wind power. Germanys share of renewables has increased from around 5% in 1999 to 17% in 2010, reaching close to the OECD average of 18% usage of renewables.[53] Producers have been guaranteed a fixed feed-in tariff for 20 years, guaranteeing a fixed income. Energy co-operatives have been created, and efforts were made to decentralize control and profits. The large energy companies have a disproportionately small share of the renewables market. Nuclear power stations were closed, and the existing nine stations will close earlier than necessary, in 2022.

The reduction of reliance on nuclear stations has had the consequence of increased reliance on fossil fuels. One factor that has inhibited efficient employment of new renewable energy has been the lack of an accompanying investment in power infrastructure to bring the power to market. It is believed 8300 km of power lines must be built or upgraded.[53]

Different Länder have varying attitudes to the construction of new power lines. Industry has had their rates frozen and so the increased costs of the Energiewende have been passed on to consumers, who have had rising electricity bills. Germans in 2013 had some of the highest electricity costs in Europe.[54] Nonetheless, for the first time in more than ten years, electricity prices for household customers fell at the beginning of 2015.[52]


On 14 September 2012 the Japanese government decided at a ministerial meeting in Tokyo to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s, or 2040 at the very latest. The government said that it would take "all possible measures" to achieve this goal.[55] A few days later the government retrenched the planned nuclear phaseout after the industry pushed for reconsideration. Arguments cited were that a nuclear phaseout would burden the economy and that imports of oil, coal, and gas would bring high added costs. The government then approved the energy transition, but left open the time-frame for decommissioning the nuclear power stations.[56]


United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is mainly focusing on wind power, both onshore and offshore, and in particular is strongly promoting the establishment of offshore wind power. With an installed capacity of 18.8 GW at the end of 2017, Britain is one of the worldwide leaders taking the sixth place, after China, the United States, Germany, India, and Spain.

United States

The Obama administration made a large push for green jobs, particularly in his first term.[57]

In the United States, the share of renewable energy (excluding hydropower) in electricity generation has grown from 3.3 percent (1990) to 5.5 percent (2013).[58] Oil use will decline in the USA owing to the increasing efficiency of the vehicle fleet and replacement of crude oil by natural gas as a feedstock for the petrochemical sector. One forecast is that the rapid uptake of electric vehicles will reduce oil demand drastically, to the point where it is 80% lower in 2050 compared with today.[59]

In December 2016, Block Island Wind Farm became the first commercial US offshore wind farm. It consists of five 6 MW turbines (together 30 MW) located near-shore (3.8 miles (6.1 km) from Block Island, Rhode Island) in the Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, Norway-based oil major Statoil laid down nearly $42.5 million on a bid to lease a large offshore area off the coast of New York.[60]

See also


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