Changing energy systems to transform lifestyles

energy efficiency, Energy 3.0, energy consumption, smart grids, renewable energyIn what ways has technological innovation changed the face of energy? What are the breakthroughs which have transformed both energy systems and uses? Here is an overview of more than a century of energy history.

From early to modern energy systems

Historian Jacques Brasseul refers to the first energy system in history as a “putting-out system”; it was used by rural industries, with mills and forges relying on water, wind and wood. Each production unit was thus supplied by a local energy source. That was before the first energy revolution – “1.0” – came about…

Energy generation then became both vertical and centralized, with a vast energy market run and promoted by a handful of national companies. Indeed, massive investments were necessary to yield economies of scale. Parallel to the standardisation of the means of production as well as the improvement of transportation and the development of electric grids, the centralization of energy generation and distribution best addressed the physical and technical challenges of the time.

However, in order to manage the increasingly high network loads induced by a steadily growing power demand, new production processes will now have to emerge. Some experts, such as Arts et Métiers engineer Michel Labrousse, consider that “the most promising way of preventing network failure is to move towards decentralized energy systems”. This new concern has been underlying recent research and stimulated the rise of energy alternatives.

Energy alternatives: decentralization and renewables

The spread of free-market principles in the 1970s contributed to undermine the centralized energy model. New regulations resulted in separating energy generation, transportation and distribution. This “2.0” approach of the energy system challenges the traditional centralized model, for instance by introducing positive-energy buildings and renewable energy sources. Among other things, it relies on a significant – and currently undergoing – improvement of storage capacities.

As a consequence, great alternative energy projects are being launched, changing the landscape of energy generation for all relevant players. A study by the French Union of Renewable Energy Sources (SER) confirms statistics from the Ministry of Sustainable Development showing that alternative energy accounts for 15% of France’s electric power mix. The inception of numerous projects nationwide should enable the country to meet the targets it set itself, raising this share to 23% as early as 2020.

Because of the ensuing scattering of energy production units, the French Court of Auditors recommended, in its latest report on renewable energy sources published in the summer of 2013, “that a centralized statistical monitoring system be set up with a view to enhancing visibility and improving decision-making”. In other words, feedback on representative experience should be used to shape future directions. In particular, the data collected will serve to assess the efficiency of public support programmes and to make sustainable long-term decisions as to how to allocate funds to different sectors.

“Energy 3.0” to empower users

After decades of centralization of energy generation, technical progress opens the way for a more efficient organization based on a hybrid model, both centralized and decentralized. The conventional vertical model will coexist with a user-based system where consumers will be empowered to control their own energy use. In his book Energie 3.0, Rudy Provoost (Rexel) explains that “the decentralized model will not do away with the centralized model; both will rather reinforce one another”, converging towards a system capable of addressing the users’ needs in a more adequate and accurate way.

This dynamic leads indeed to a virtuous circle. Intelligent energy management and monitoring alone represent energy savings of up to 44% of final electric power consumption. In the very short term, this could cut household energy bills in half, simply by offering them tailor-made goods and services to optimize their energy use.

See also :

  • Energie 3.0 , Rudy Provoost
  • Energy efficiency to foster energy growth (L’efficacité énergétique, levier de la croissance énergétique), GIMELEC
  • Reinventing fire, Amory Lovins
  • Histoire des faits économiques, Jacques Brasseul
  • Report by the French Court of Auditors on renewable energy policy
  • Changing energy systems (L’évolution des systèmes énergétiques), Global Chance, Edgar Blaustein
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