Energy for the Future: Renewables and Challenges

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Nuclear power plant

Nuclear reactions are used to produce energy. Photo by 12923.

The future of energy production, in particular the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources, is a topic of utmost importance. Professor Marc Fontecave analyses the key issues of this subject in an editorial article in Angewandte International.

The Challenge of the Energy Production

The production of ever-increasing amounts of energy is a real challenge for our society.

According to data published by the US Energy Information and Administration (EIA), from 2002 to 2012 world energy production increased by roughly 20 % – from 1.2×10+14 to 1.5×10+14 kWh.

The higher energy demand is due to different factors, which include the increasing world population and the rapid development of some upcoming countries such as India and China.

Wind turbine

Wind is a renewable energy source. Image by Hans.

The Use of Renewable Sources

In recent years there has been a growing interest to produce energy from non-fossil fuels, i.e. from renewable sources such as sun, wind, biomass/biodiesel, etc.

Indeed today more and more energy is produced from renewables; EIA data, for instance, show that from 2002 to 2012 the world electricity from renewable sources increased from 2.9×10+12 to 4.7×10+12 kWh (more than 35 % higher).

Despite this, however, the majority of energy at present is still produced from fossil fuels (i.e. oil, natural gas, coal) or through nuclear reactions.

Energy: Outlook to the Future

The future of energy production is a crucial issue for our society; one of the debated points is which sources should be used in the future, and if/how we can replace fossil fuels / nuclear power with renewables.

Professor Marc Fontecave, from Paris Collège de France, published an editorial article in Angewandte International in April 2015. In the article he analyzes the most important aspects of energy production for the upcoming years.

Fossil Fuels Limits

Professor Fontecave explains to Decoded Science why we need to look at renewable sources.

“We all know that fossil fuel supplies are finite and that, therefore, they will not last forever. Keeping this in mind, it makes perfect sense, for instance, to use oil to produce chemical compounds we need (i.e. polymers, pharmaceuticals) and produce energy from something else.

Also, renewable sources can give energy independence to the countries which do not have enough fossil fuels to match their energy demand.

Furthermore, of course, there are also environmental issues, as many people think that the combustion of high quantities of fossil fuels and the resulting increased carbon dioxide emissions are a danger to our planet.”

Transition to Renewables

According to Professor Fontecave, however, the switch from fossil fuels to renewables is not something simple and immediate.

“Changing our energy production completely is not easy at all.

There are, for instance, political issues. Considering France, for example, its society is based on cheap nuclear electricity; in the US, on the other hand, the economy is recovering due also to the exploitation of shale gas. In emerging countries, the whole society is developing also thanks to fossil fuels.

In other words, it is impossible to change energy production without seriously affecting the economy and the shape of society – and no government is keen to do that.”

The Technology

Beyond the politics, however, there are other obstacles to a quick transition to a fossil-fuel free world.

“Differently from what many people may think, the technologies for us to use just renewables is not here yet” Professor Fontecave says, “It is not just a question of scaling up to industrial level what we did at laboratory scale; what we need is to improve our technologies. Only with this we can eventually reach the conditions to give up fossil fuels and nuclear, and use only renewable sources.”

Research laboratory

Research can lead to advanced technology for renewables use. Image by DarkoStojanovic.

More Energy Research

To improve the technologies, we need indeed more investment and research, both at basic and at technological level. According to Professor Fontecave,

“We are still facing drastic technological challenges, the energy storage being an example. To address these issues, research is essential; a multidisciplinary approach, with strong cooperation between academia and industry, is the way forward.”

Scientific research can lead, for instance, to the development of new materials for more efficient photovoltaic devices. It can also help, however, to limit the energy waste and consumption; materials for better thermal insulation or lighter materials for the automotive industry, for instance, can work in this sense.

A Long Way to Go

“Like many other scientists, I believe it is necessary and inevitable to find alternatives to fossil fuels.” Professor Fontecave says, “It has to be clear, however, that there is still a long way to go. It is wrong to make people believe fossil fuels will disappear in the next 35 years; it will take much longer, and we will be able to achieve this only by working hard on the development of the technology.”

The Energy of the Future

Looking at the future of energy production, renewable sources will surely become more and more important. Their complete replacement of fossil fuels or nuclear power plants, however, is something we are still not ready for. Research and long term investments are the key elements to achieve proper technologies for renewable energy to be sustainable.

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