The new era of energy? Dilemmas for the future

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RAFA? ANDRZEJ SMENTEK, Weimar Dialogue

Ligne_haute-tensionWithin the next years the topic of energy could be dominant in the international relations in Europe and surpass such problems like financial crisis, equal rights or tolerance. Probably only the subject of water scarcity will compete with energy for time on daily news. The reason for that is simple and consists of three parts.

pobraneThe first one is the fact that in the 21st century energy became one of necessities of life. If you look at the pyramid of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and you adapt this model to international relations and to the needs of the state, you could place the energy matters just at the bottom of the triangle (basic needs). The modern state without regular energy supplies simply won’t exist.

The second reason is the trend of rising demand for energy and energy consumption in the world. According to BP the energy consumption in 2012 has risen about 2,5% compared to the previous year. The biggest increase was noted in China (+8,8%), India (7,4%) and Asia-Pacific Region (+5,4%). This area will be a motor for the future development of energy technologies and will strongly affect the world energy market but consumption will also rise globally.

This will concern European Union too, despite the decrease of consumption (-3,1%). Firstly because it’s hard to imagine that European countries and companies will not engage themselves in that potentially very profitable market. Secondly, because of the climate policy where the EU tries to put very strict rules into practice and wants to set an example for others by reducing its own emissions. If the EU will stay the only region with such politics, companies could move out from Europe out of fear of loss of competitiveness.

The last reason is the upcoming transformation (or revolution) in the energy sector. The energy mix based on fossil fuels, must be changed. On the one hand because of the shrinking reserves, on the other – because of the desire to be relatively independent from other countries such as Russia or Middle Eastern states. Every country needs to redefine its energy politics and diverse the energy sources. Obviously petroleum, coal and natural gas will not disappear but should be reduced.

How to create an ideal mix? Ingredients

The rulers of the countries will have much more possibilities to create a reasonable mix than in the past. Besides the traditional sources, thanks to the development of technology, they can choose some new methods of energy production. This spectrum includes:

  1. Petroleum – currently the main source of energy in the world that can’t be replaced in some areas because of the liquid form and great energy density (1 kWh from liter), which is used in transportation. Other resources can be used to produce electricity or heat but none is able to move ships or airplanes so effectively. There’s also a problem with shrinking reserves of petroleum but this one will be probably solved within a few years with the new methods of extraction tight oil, oil sands and undersea reserves.
  2. Coal – a “dirty” energy source which produces a great amount of greenhouse emissions but is also relatively cheap and easy to transport. There are also potentially big reserves of this source. The share of coal in the energy mixes will be regularly reduced because of the climate policy, but every country will probably keep some coal as a reserve and supplementary source.
  3. Natural gas – much “cleaner” than coal or petroleum and easy to transport too. This source is very effective in heating or cooling systems. In liquid form (LNG) can be also used as a fuel in transportation. In the 21st century we know the method of how to transform gas from its natural form to liquid, which helps to transport it without the pipelines by using ships. The reserves of gas are obviously limited but thanks to the non-conventional forms, above all shale gas, the reserves should be enough for a longer time. The question is if fracking – the method of extraction the shale gas – is really secure for the environment, especially for ground water.
  4. Nuclear energy – this kind of energy has some advantages, among others the nuclear power stations produce relatively cheap electric current and are independent from natural resources, so you can build it almost everywhere (near a water reservoir) in the place which actually needs energy. But it has also many defects. Chernobyl and lastly Fukushima have shown the danger related to using this kind of energy. Furthermore, although nuclear power station does not emit any greenhouse gas, there is a problem with storing the nuclear wastes which are not environmentally friendly. And last but not least, nuclear power station should work permanently without breaks and produces every day the same amount of energy so one cannot adapt the supplies to the actual trends.
  5. A renewable energy sources (RES) – energy from the sun, wind or water sounds great and is also environmentally friendly. The sector of renewables in the last years has made a big step forward but there is still a lot to do. Green energy is relatively expensive and needs to be subsidized. We do not have to pay for sun or wind but we should invest in technologies, because those which are available now, are not efficient. Aside from that, renewable energy sources depend on geography and weather, which makes them uncertain.

A puzzle play. How to connect everything?

Power generation and conversion into electricity, fuels and heating or cooling systems is only the first part in the whole process. Next challenges are transportation and storage. Crude oil and gas can be delivered with pipelines. Both can also be transported by ships or trains. The same with coal, but all of them must to be transformed into power in petro chemistries or power stations and further with cables or pipelines to the consumers. Furthermore nuclear and green energy can be delivered only with the last method directly from power stations.

The energy grid needs also an effective storage system to gather energy in the periods when production is bigger than consumption to secure delivery when consumption rises or in case of crisis situations. The batteries as we know cannot be a real solution. Probably the best storage method is pumped-storage hydroelectricity but this one is dependent on geography, because it works most effectively in the mountainous regions (many slopes). We have also compressed air energy storage but for that we need a sufficient infrastructure (underground caverns such as abandoned mines). Till now, every storage method leaves a lot to be desired. This sector needs investments in Research & Development activities.

Another important question is a decision if our system should be managed centrally or should be decentralized. First solution brings us a relative security of deliveries but there is also a fear of being dominated by big companies. On the other hand there is a concept of prosumer – in the context of energy – a consumer who produces energy for his own use but also possibly to sell. That’s a great response for smaller communities but it sounds idyllic when we think about the whole regions or states. Obviously we can mix both systems, which seems to be the best solution.

Conclusion

In this context creation of reasonable energy system is very difficult. Each country has its own main source determined by resources, geography or politics. We can see the differences on the example of Weimar Triangle. France is a leader in the nuclear energy sector; Germany has made opt-out from the nuclear sector and goes in the RES direction and Poland’s main energy source remains coal. This example shows also that a national energy strategy closed within the borders is no more possible. Germany imports French nuclear energy and Poland defends his grid from overload relating to the German wind energy, which comes irregularly but with a large amount from the north to Bavaria using Polish energy system. Even if any country would like to stay independent, the effect of such activity will not be good.

There is a need of a global or at least European energy security strategy, but that’s not easy. Every country has its own interests and energy politics and will fight for the best solutions for its own economy. France will not resign from nuclear only because the Germans have fear from that technology at the same time using it. Poland will not resign from coal only because Germans thinks it s bad for environment although Germany is the “dirtiest” country in Europe and produces energy from lignite which is more damaging to the environment than Polish hard coal. Lastly, Germany will not resign from the project Energiewende only because others think it is unreasonable.

We need a sensible common European energy policy, which won’t favor any member states but will effectively deliver energy to our houses. Creation of such a system with energy mix consists of 26 mixes of EU-countries, connected within the common smart grid and secured by storage methods is hard but necessary if the EU wants to be a real international player.


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Rafał Smentek

Absolwent nauk politycznych Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego i stypendysta programu Erasmus na Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität w Monachium. Zaangażowany w tzw. dziennikarstwo obywatelskie (Wiadomości24.pl, Stosunki Międzynarodowe). Dwukrotny praktykant Fundacji Konrada Adenauera w Polsce. Od marca do lipca 2012 stażysta w ramach Internationales-Parlaments-Stipendium w niemieckim Bundestagu w biurze posła Eckharda Polsa (CDU).

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