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The Global Energy Prize annually honors outstanding achievements in energy research and technology from around the world that are helping address the world’s various and pressing energy challenges.

Brighter Green Future

September 19, 2017

How to combine new power technologies with energy efficiency and decarbonisation of energy – that was the subject discussed by the Global Energy Prize laureates and members of the International Award Committee at the annual summit in Lyon. Experts unsurprisingly believe electric energy to be the centrepiece of the future more distributed system and to replace hydrocarbon fuel, with green generation becoming the main energy source. However, their visions of the timing of this quantum leap vary significantly. Besides, there is no consensus as to whether this transition should be supported by government subsidies, or the “new energy” has to make its way naturally, relying on market factors. Yuri Barsukov reporting.

The traditional Global Energy Prize Summit this time was held in Lyon, at the HQ of the Euronews TV channel – a futuristic-looking enormous green cube with a flaring glazed opening at the top. At first sight, the construction resembles a huge worm-eaten apple or a Jurassic Park decoration. However, this building is green only in its colour, not in energy supply. Nevertheless, as Kommersant found out, many other large buildings in Lyon have solar panels, and some of them are even heated by a biomass-based system.

Such ambivalence was typical for the expert discussion as well. The topic was presented in a rather abstract and commonplace way: how (or, to be more specific, how and where) the three “e”: energy, economy and ecology can be brought together to generate the future global energy system in 50–100 years. The key topic was worded in a more specific way in the opening speech of the head of the Global Energy Association Igor Lobovsky: “Is clean renewable energy our future or just a bubble?”

In simplistic terms, all experts agreed that renewable energy sources (RES) will be playing a critical and potentially a key role in the future energy balance. However, rather quickly there was manifested a difference as to what types of energy should supplement RES. Thus, CERN Director for Accelerators and Technology Frederik Bordry sees in this role large thermonuclear units. Former CEO of Enel Russia Dominique Fache doubted the cost efficiency of such units, noting that in the Western world the number of even well-equipped NPPs is reducing. Mr Fache also reminded that currently 80% of energy generation in India and 75% in China are provided by coal units. “At present, nobody knows what the energy balance will look like by 2050”, - he believes.

At the same time, at the macrolevel, such systems can be stable only in the presence of energy storage systems with sufficient capacity and reliability, which are not available yet. A number of experts stressed that such systems are getting cheaper and cheaper, so a breakthrough in this direction is right around the corner. Global Energy Prize laureate 2005 Klaus Riedle responded to this that such technology does not exist in practice, whereas many current forecasts of the RES share and role are based on the assumption that cheap and powerful energy batteries will be created. Here comes the threat of building an expensive and unreliable system. “Let us travel the path of emission reduction, but relying on existing technologies. This subject is too important to experiment with decisions that we will not be able to support”, — he stated.

Mr Riedle, who was busy designing combined cycle gas turbines for Siemens for most part of his career, nearly crossed the red line expressing doubt in the current forecasts for global temperature growth due to the greenhouse effect. He presented a graph that demonstrated that within the last decade the actual temperature data have differed greatly from those predicted by the model on which the UNO bases its forecasts of the global warming dynamics. Other experts, including Professor of Incheon University Rae Kwon Chung (former Chief Advisor to United-Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on climate change issues), disagreed with these conclusions.
As a result, an express survey on the basis of the results of the discussion showed that 39% of those present supposed that by 2050 more than a half of the demand for energy resources will still be accounted for by oil and gas, while 32% spoke in favour of RES in this role.

Another topic was the question of whether and to what extent state regulation of the energy sector is needed, in particular, to stimulate emission reduction. Dominique Fache stated that each country has to choose its own approach, with a universal instrument potentially being a tax on carbon dioxide, not linked to a specific technology. A well-known example of Germany was given, whose government was actively subsidizing RES, but the emission tax was low, which resulted in giving privilege, alongside with the sun and the wind, to cheap coal-steam plants, even with a consequential slight increase of the total emission rate. Rae Kwon Chung spoke in favour of imposing carbon tax on private individuals with simultaneous reduction of income tax. In his opinion, such measure would not impact the total tax burden and the state revenue, but will stimulate emission reduction.

Managing Director of Asia Renewables William Il Byun doubted the viability of this offer, noting that in major countries it is now “very difficult to pass a bill that has the word “tax” in it”. Mr Byun believes it is better to refrain from massive state subsidies and let the market regulate which renewable technologies will be implemented. To his mind, the best prospects are for new solutions to be used directly by consumers: e.g. soon smartphones could be created with a solar cell screen, or flexible ultrathin panels that could be attached to people’s clothes. Such capabilities are offered by devices based on the Graetzel cell invented by Swiss scientist Michael Graetzel who won the Global Energy Prize this year.

As far as industrial utilization of RES is concerned, the most radical sci-fi concept was offered by Dominique Fache. According to him, by the end of the next century most part of the electric power for the Earth’s needs will be generated in the space by huge solar plants and then transmitted to the surface with the help of powerful lasers. In many cases, energy transmission will become wireless and the energy system will resemble the current internet system: clients would be paying mainly for connection to the world wide web and participating in both energy production and consumption.

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