Understanding a Holistic Approach to a Low-Carbon Energy Future

Yves Bamberger, noted energy expert, was invited by 2023 IEEE President & CEO Saifur Rahman to participate in an IEEE Board of Directors strategy retreat to share insights about low-carbon electricity and how it can be managed for the future. IEEE members can play key advisory and education roles.

Abstract image representing a low-carbon energy futureYves Bamberger knows his way around technology, engineering, and energy. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Technologies of France (NATF). Yves was head of Électricité de France (EDF) R&D and a Scientific Advisor to the EDF Chairman and CEO. He has also served on many boards, including Gartner Research, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), and the first SmartGrids European Technology Platform.

Recently, Bamberger was invited by 2023 IEEE President & CEO Saifur Rahman to participate in an IEEE Board of Directors strategy retreat, where Bamberger shared his thinking about low-carbon electricity and how we can learn to manage it for a more sustainable, reliable, and resilient future.

Bamberger’s book, “Electricity: Humanity’s Low-carbon Future; Safeguarding Our Ecological Niche1,” co-authored with Hans B. (Teddy) Püttgen2, is a pragmatic approach to a low-carbon energy transition, or as they like to call it, an energy mutation. In Bamberger and Püttgen’s approach, the energy transition includes the quest to decarbonize energy production and consumption with low-carbon electricity at the core of new energy systems, while ensuring access to safe and reliable energy to the segment of the Earth’s population for whom it is a luxury. 

Central to Bamberger’s message is the expanded role of engineers as objective policy advisors, the importance of a holistic approach to the energy transition, and the notion of an informed and engaged citizenry. He observes that people cannot approach a global energy transition without viewing it through a holistic and pragmatic lens. The world is a complicated place with significant discrepancies in energy consumption and production. There are many parts of the world where people live without reliable electricity. It cannot be expected that these cultures behave in the same way as those countries with robust electricity networks and built-in redundancies. Therefore, global energy transition requires different approaches across the world. What is critical, according to Bamberger, is that we all should do what we can. For example, energy transition in OECD3 (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries should be much faster compared to that in less-developed nations. In all cases, there need to be policies that promote a holistic approach to decarbonizing electricity. 

Bamberger stresses the expanding role that engineers can play during the energy transition. Not only are they critical in developing, testing, and deploying the necessary technology, their role should include advising policymakers. Navigating the energy path will invariably include controversy, such as the expanded use of nuclear energy. The engineers’ role must be to advise objectively. 

Finally, a successful energy transition requires an educated and engaged citizenry who play an active role. Even young students will need to be more aware of energy sources and their own consumption habits. Here again, there is a role for engineers to play. Bamberger observes that IEEE, with its global reach, is particularly well placed to advance that education. 

The following are specific questions addressed by Yves Bamberger. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is about the role electricity plays in a low carbon-future. Tell us about Energia.
When we wrote the book, it was important to us that we be understood. We wanted the book to be useful and relate to real life. But to do that, we thought we had to look at a national level. We introduced four families, describing their energy situation on four continents. But we also found it important to describe a holistic approach to energy, one where governments embrace all the different sectors of the society considering the community and its demographics, the energy network, and so on. The reason we decided to create Energia, a fictional country, was to show this global approach.

We decided that Energia could be neither a huge country nor too small. We believed that it would be an average size, that it should be an OECD country, because they would have an industrial infrastructure and a high level of energy independence to take care of.

Would you like to live in Energia?
Yes, I would like to live there because the climate is nice. But more importantly, this country has respectful debate between the citizens because the culture has a long-term energy policy, which is key for long-term success. The decarbonization effort requires a clear view that goes beyond three to five years. The policymakers need to stay the course to maintain the policies. For example, in countries with a nuclear policy, it is necessary that public opinion and the government are in synchronization.

In order to hit our goals set out in the Paris Agreement, we need to electrify everything and address the consumption and production side of energy, ideally making everything as low carbon as possible, i.e., clean electricity. What does this clean electricity ecosystem look like? What are the options for clean electricity sources?
It’s important to understand that arriving at low-carbon electricity is fundamental to our decarbonization plan. Low-carbon electricity is nuclear or renewable in the form of hydro, wind, and solar. 

In my personal opinion, we won’t have enough low-carbon electricity in the next few years. We are going far too slowly in the decarbonization effort. Therefore, we need nuclear and renewables to arrive at a low-carbon state. We have lost a lot of time, probably about 20 years or more, when we could have been developing enough generation facilities to decarbonize our countries. Unfortunately, the alliance between industry, governments, and citizens has not been in the right equilibrium. The interests of some stakeholders are contradictory, and the right decisions are not easily taken.

We have many existing technologies to reduce emissions that could be deployed massively right now. Maybe they aren’t perfect and should be improved, but they could work now as we refine them for the future. While we are embarking on fusion energy, let’s continue to develop the current low-carbon solutions so we will not lose even more time.

Can today’s power grid handle an ever-expanding clean-electricity ecosystem?
Now that we understand the low-carbon electricity goal, we can look at how to get there. There are big discrepancies across the world. 

The developed nations already have big and strong power systems. They will be building a second-generation grid, while emerging nations will need to build their first- and second-generation grids all at once. We have the knowledge to advise the emerging nations on how to move forward toward power systems with a low-carbon approach.

Ideally, we want to avoid developing new transmission lines, which is a difficult effort. We have the possibility to reinforce existing lines with new technologies. For instance, we can also do local optimization between generation and consumption using IT systems and storage.

In the end, there is no one strategy. Rather, it’s a combination of reinforcing the network, modernizing the network, and locally optimizing consumption and generation, which limits the expense of major network reinforcement.

Can you think of a situation where a country’s government sets a policy that seemed beneficial in the short run but turned out to be counterproductive in the long term?
I’m sorry, but it is not my role to list countries good to bad. I don’t have enough information to address this question. 

But what I can say is that we do need to increase our ability to fact check. New regulations are presented as progress, but when we analyze them more carefully, it is not always clear. We do need to be sure that we don’t deploy counterproductive policies. For example, should regulations address reducing primary energy or CO2 emissions? It does not have the same consequences as Teddy and I explain in our book. In my opinion, I believe the focus ought to be on reducing CO2

It’s important to understand the consequences of the regulations choices. We don’t need to go into the political sphere, but we must advise the policymakers and the industrial leaders while respecting the facts, being ethically responsible, and offering holistic explanations. 

How do you see engineers, particularly electrical engineers, addressing this topic? What would you tell a young engineering student about their future?  
Engineers have a positive role to play in the energy-transition process. There are several aspects to this. One is in terms of education. How are we educating the teachers on the energy topic, who are then educating our young people all the way down to high school and even elementary school? My feeling is that we are in a period where the notion of progress has disappeared and has been replaced with innovation. Innovation is not always progress. We must educate the teachers and show the historical technical progress.

Another impact for engineers is to fight against bad information. We need to use logic and repeat the story where we’ve made progress. Engineers have a role to play to explain the possible. IEEE is particularly well placed to address this effort. 

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[1] Püttgen, H.B. (Teddy) and Bamberger, Y. (2020). Electricity: Humanity’s Low-carbon Future.  https://doi.org/10.1142/11939.
[2] www.ece.gatech.edu. (n.d.). Hans B Puttgen | School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. [online] Available at: https://www.ece.gatech.edu/faculty-staff-directory/hans-b-puttgen.‌
[3] OECD (2022). Available at: https://www.oecd.org/.