The New Global Energy System Will Be Electrified, Local and Varied

The world’s energy system has been based on fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for two centuries. Fossil fuels are the ultimate commodities: easy to transport, easy to store and standardized. The fossil fuel energy system is thus a huge monoculture. A gas pump pumps the essentially same product, whether it’s in Québec City, Dallas, Paris or Nairobi. The big oil companies are also helping to standardize products and propagate best practices globally.

Fossil fuels are highly exposed to geopolitical uncertainties. If Putin decides to turn off the tap, Europe risks freezing. If revolutionaries decide to close the Gulf of Aden, oil tankers must take longer and more expensive routes.

The electrified global energy system is different. Electricity cannot be efficiently stored for transport: power lines have at most a few thousand kilometres. While it is possible to store electricity in batteries or with pumped hydroelectricity, the economic storage period is measured in hours or days. The production is therefore more local and quickly consumed.

However, the sources of electricity and the needs to electrify vary greatly from one place to another. If you can get solar power to stay cool in South Australia, you heat your home with hydroelectricity in Québec. Then there is wind power in the Netherlands and nuclear power in France.

Geopolitics will be much less important. If China can’t send us new solar panels, others will, and we can always adopt the industrial policies to make them here. In addition, the panels already delivered will continue to generate power, while we would be stuck and freezing (or sweating) without a continuous supply of fossil fuels.

So here’s another feature of the electrified global energy system: it will be local. Regional electrification choices will depend on locally available resources and solutions will vary accordingly. What works in California doesn’t necessarily work here.

However, the tools will be the same everywhere: renewable generation (centralized or distributed), storage, transmission, distribution, and efficient use. The dissemination of technical knowledge and business best practices will have to be more explicit than was necessary with the big oil companies. Each region will have to develop a good industrial and technological watch to learn from others, share its successes, and regularly compare its performance.

So, get ready for your electrified future: producing and consuming locally while being inspired by global ideas.