How can we accelerate the energy transition? by Jan Rotmans

How can we accelerate the energy transition? by Jan Rotmans

Jan Rotmans, Professor of Transitions and Transition Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam Jan Rotmans, Professor of Transitions and Transition Management at Erasmus University Rotterdam has spent 25 years dealing with the energy transition and is still optimistic, he told the audience. “The transition is more than energy.”

He said the energy transition is more than just using wind and solar power, it’s about building an entirely different energy system. And “It will become free but we need to invest massively in the new system,” he explained.

The biggest barrier is between our ears

Taking the Netherlands as an example, the ‘massive investment’ is needed over the next couple of decades, as well as a change in behaviour, said the professor. “After 25 years of observing the energy transition, the biggest barrier is between our ears.”

Differences between China, the USA, Germany and the Netherlands are not based on technology, but on vision, and on pressure from society. This takes decades to change, said Rotmans. He described how the tipping point of the energy transition had been reached, from its origins in the 1970s with discussions in the global think tank the Club of Rome and its 1987 report called Our Common Future ‒ also known as the Brundtland Report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development; the UN’s Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997; and the Fukushima Accident in 2011, which had huge impact on attitudes to nuclear energy. The transition is more than a battle of technology, it’s a shift in thinking, he said. He predicted a disempowerment of the current regime followed by the development of new niches. He identified indicators such as the phasing out of coal-fired power plants worldwide; the decoupling of economic growth and C02 emissions, the drop in value of electricity companies; a decrease in oil price; and the fact that solar photovoltaic energy is now about 80 per cent cheaper than it was seven years ago. Grid parity has existed in many regions since 2013 – that’s the point at which solar power and wind power can compete with power from fossil fuels.

No one person can stop this

“No one person can stop this transition anymore,” said Rotmans. “The forces affecting the energy transition now are societal pressure, geopolitics, technology, climate, business and finance. The Paris Agreement in 2016 was a historical landmark, and if Trump wants to go back to coal – well, do you really think he can make money by going back to the past?” he asked the audience. He called President Trump’s decision ‘annoying and significant’ but “it is merely noise compared to what is happening globally."

"I say it again, no single man can stop this happening.”

Professor Rotmans explained that the countervailing response is happening all over the world because of Trump. “Others are going even faster – he has motivated them,” he observed, and referred to the ‘Divest’ protest which originated in a demonstration by students at Swarthmore College who objected to their college’s investment in fossil fuels. The protest has spread to colleges across the USA. The major players in the transition are Russia, China and Europe and the competition will escalate, he said; complicating factors are the Ukraine crisis affecting the competition for gas between Russia and Europe; the competition between China and Europe ‒ and between the USA and China ‒ over solar panels; and competition between Germany and other European countries. There is no recipe for accelerating the energy transition, he said, but there are four key impulses: financial, judicial, institutional and mental.

There are still legal barriers

To decentralise and digitise the Netherlands’ energy systems would need a massive investment over the next decade, to be paid by business, industry and the population. “So we have to pay a lot to get that ‘almost free’ energy,” said Rotmans. Both hardware and software are important for preparing the population for the next economy, which he predicted would create 250,000 Dutch jobs in the long term. But that number excludes jobs lost from the old economy when coal and gas plants close. “There are also 20 legal barriers in to the energy transition in the Netherlands; for example you cannot re-use waste, as a result of a ruling from Brussels, he said. “But if you can’t re-use waste, how can you stimulate a circular economy?”

Connecting the old and the new

We need more connectors to connect the old economy and the new, and to get central governments on board, giving a direction and providing space, facilitating and connecting people and cities. Preparing young people and preparing a strategy for zero carbon, circularity and for becoming more bio-based is the vision for 2050, he said. Examples of enablers generating action on transition pathways already include truck platooning to increase the capacity of roads, ‘waste2chemicals’ to recover biochemicals from waste streams, geothermal energy, a CO2 grid, and campuses with field laboratories.

There are already business cases about regional investment platforms, and city neighbourhoods are earmarked for ‘smart’ and energy neutral transformation. “This is among the greatest challenges we have seen in modern history. We have people, a knowledge network and institutions, but we hardly profit from it. We need to collaborate more, and with courage and leadership.”

Responding to questions from the audience, the professor predicted a battle for resources because China produces 95 per cent of the rare earth metals that are scarce in Europe but are essential for the energy transition. Asked by a member of the audience if there is a role for energy tax, the professor replied that while CO2 doesn’t have ‘a real price’ there will be no progress. “It’s absurd that it’s so low. I already predicted 15 years ago that the EU’s Emissions Trading Systems (ETS) would not work. We need to give CO2 a price, and there’s no other way other than to tax it,” he said.