Monday, July 22, 2019

Burning fossil fuels jeopardizes the very livelihoods of vulnerable groups and could result in a massive rise in the world’s already significant number of refugees

By Shi Dinghuan, Stephan Kohler and Sergei Shmatko

The focus has shifted in debates over the security of energy supplies. While the secure supply of energy sources (coal, petroleum and natural gas) was once the central theme and will remain necessary for some time, of even greater importance are sustainability and climate compatibility. Headlines touting decisions by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have been replaced by those citing international climate conferences and their declarations on decarbonizing the global economy.

The still readily available supplies of fossil fuels should be replaced, as the CO2 emissions that result from burning these resources are transforming the earth’s climate, which will and already is having massive negative effects on the well-being of large population groups. This destructive trend could jeopardize the very livelihoods of these vulnerable groups and result in a massive rise in the world’s already significant number of refugees.

Nuclear energy should also be ruled out due to the high risks it poses. What we need is a forward-looking policy that promotes and supplies low-risk energy solutions that are both sustainable and compatible with our climate. This “new” understanding of energy increasingly requires energy efficiency, the exploitation of regenerative energy sources and the CO2-free burning of fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage.

A successful provisioning strategy needs a stable foundation of suitable, decentralized elements, a broad range of energy sources, innovative technologies and high intelligence. This requires well-developed infrastructure such as pipelines like Nord Stream 2 and liberalized markets that are free of trade restrictions, which will help realize economic efficiency potentials and greatly reduce global energy consumption.

The use of regenerative energy sources is on the rise worldwide; along with hydropower and biomass, which have played an important role in energy provision for some time, solar power, wind power and geothermal energy are growing in importance. The fluctuating generation of solar and wind energy requires that we develop and deploy additional energy storage technologies to guarantee supply security. The decarbonization of fossil fuels, such as natural gas, is also needed in order to be able to use cost-effective energy sources with long-term storage capacities.

An energy-efficient and regenerative energy economy – often termed a Smart Energy System (SES) – can reduce supply problems with fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, yet creates new challenges and security problems. Implementing an SES relies on numerous new technologies, such as photovoltaic plants, wind power stations and storage technologies, (autonomously driven) electric vehicles, smart-home and smart-grid systems as well as a high degree of web-based connectivity.

In an SES, the question of the availability of and access to raw materials like rare earths, indium, platinum group metals, lithium and cobalt plays an increasingly important role. These elements are needed for manufacturing technologies that are critical for the energy revolution, including photovoltaic plants, wind farms, fuel cells as well as hydrogen electrolysis and battery systems for electric cars.

However, these raw materials are often not sufficiently available, and deposits of these elements and minerals are found in other countries. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to around two-thirds of all known reserves of cobalt, which is indispensable to the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries for use in electric cars. Rare earth elements, 95 percent of which are found in China, are also necessary for a number of innovative energy revolution technologies.

The ability to access such resources is critical to the technological, industrial and economic development of countries and their industries, and thus also a key element for maintaining the social stability of these states. For instance, in resource-poor, industrialized countries like Germany, access to future raw materials is essential.

Cybersecurity within an SES is becoming central to the security

of energy supplies. The digital networking of millions of decentralized generation facilities with millions of electronic applications like electric cars, industrial facilities and household appliances harbors an immense risk of disruption to the systems, including a catastrophe such as a complete blackout affecting all of Europe.

While the new energy world, its challenges, dependencies and risks are discernible in outline, we do not yet have the complete picture – in all its complexities – before our eyes. The transformation from a fossil fuel-based energy economy to one centered on mineral resources (mainly metals) and a technology-driven energy world requires completely new solutions. The future security of our energy supply depends on it. We must therefore forge new bridges of cooperation in our quest for supplies of raw materials, as well as in the realm of artificial intelligence and systems optimization.

Shi Dinghuan
is the former Chinese vice minister for science and technology.

Stephan Kohler
is the former chief executive of the German Energy Agency.

Sergei Shmatko
is the former Russian minister of energy.