Moving from a nuclear and fossil energy system towards renewables requires a smart combination of new production capacities, reductions in energy consumption and more efficient use. Citizens, municipalities, businesses and policy makers will need to work together to make the transition possible.
The German "Energiewende" (Energy Transition) is without doubt one of the largest and most complex deliberate transformations of an established industrial economy. There are no historical precedents to refer back to. This transformation would not have been possible without the Wuppertal Institute and fellow pioneers that provided the analysis and strategies to match the political will.
It is common to equate the Energiewende with the scaling-up of renewables and their integration into the grid. This interpretation is much too narrow: Firstly, advances in energy efficiency are equally important, secondly it frames the Energiewende as a purely technological challenge.
In reality the Energiewende faces a diverse bundle of challenges. One the one hand there is the complex technological task of integrating renewables into the existing system, especially solar and wind with their fluctuations. On the other hand it is important to combine renewables and efficiency technologies into systemic solutions.
In implementing the Energiewende, especially focussing on climate protection and the exit from nuclear energy, conflicts with other environmental goals must not be ignored. Regarding resources, the key technologies of the Energiewende must be subjected to a close examination of their use of critical resources (e.g. rare earths, toxic materials) and their conflicts with alternative uses of space (e.g. energy vs. biodiversity).
All political levels (from the EU to the federal level, provinces and regions down to cities and municipalities) need to work together and find the right path for the transition. This requires a consistent multi-level approach to governance as well as a long-term orientation beyond election cycles.
Direct participation of citizens is an essential societal component of the Energiewende. With energy production becoming more decentralised, it will be much more visible and relevant to all of us. This allows for consumers to take on a more active role. By installing their own solar panels or joining with others to generate "citizen energy", they turn into "Prosumers" that consume and produce at the same time.
Over the last decades significant improvements in energy efficiency were realised, even though huge potentials remain untapped. Unfortunately, improvements are often counteracted by rebound effects leading to increased demand. This is where sufficiency comes in. As a strategy, it aims at reducing energy demand without losses in comfort. Energy sufficiency addresses the question how demand for heated and lit spaces can be limited and how patterns of usage can change. There is next to no research on how this very cost-effective strategy can be utilised politically and turned into business models, creating an exiting opportunity for the Wuppertal Institute.
The Energiewende is not a linear process, there will be various phases and central decision points (e.g. regarding the build-up of new infrastructure). The boundaries between different structures (heating, electricity, mobility) are becoming fuzzy, speed and complexity of the overall system are increasing. The Wuppertal Institute is contributing to a better understanding of the system, the socio-technical interactions within it as well as the possibilities for shaping the various transformations.
Energy efficiency is the slumbering giant of the energy transition. Waking it up means drastically reducing energy waste, which will enable faster achievement of an energy system based on renewables.
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