Everyone who works on energy futures – myself included – spends a great deal of time envisioning and then evaluating the scientific, technical, policy, and behavioral factors needed to initiate and sustain these shifts.

We recently completed a study of what it would take in western North America to expand the deployment of solar power from its current level of less than 1 percent of electricity to one third of total electricity supply by 2050. In an earlier study, we examined what it would take on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua to develop a sustainable renewable-energy dominated energy grid for several rural communities.  In yet another project, we examined the ability for the Malaysian state of Sabah to choose a low-carbon path instead of a coal-dominated future.

At the national, regional, and global level, energy transitions are all the rage.  The European Climate Foundation has released studies of entirely decarbonizing the European Union by 2050, while my laboratory has examined complete and near-complete decarbonization pathways for western North America, China, and Chile by 2050.  And the Trottier Foundation has compiled a wonderful report on low- and zero-carbon futures at the national level.

These studies are vital to understand the opportunities, barriers, and the costs as well as benefits of pushing for these major changes in our energy system. These studies typically look forward to 2020, 2030, or 2050.

But what do these transitions look like on the ground?

Earlier this week I saw a transition, and, well, it was pretty.

I was speaking at a conference on corporate social responsibility near Karup, Denmark.

A billboard highlights a corporate social responsibility conference and awards meeting in Denmark. (Photograph courtesy Dan Kammen)

A billboard highlights a corporate social responsibility conference and awards meeting in Denmark. (Photograph courtesy Dan Kammen)

Following the meeting, I needed to fly to a meeting of Arctic experts in London sponsored by National Geographic and Shell as part of the Great Energy Challenge. To get there I flew out of Billund, in southern Denmark, 90 kilometers (55 miles) away.

To get to Billund, we drove in a Tesla S-class sedan, and spent the drive not just marveling at the range and performance of this particular electric vehicle, but also the myriad of new electric cars on the market, from Coda, BYD, Fisker, and also from older automakers such as Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, Renault, and others.

We marveled over the incredible electronic display in the car where the web interface is so good that stopping the car to check email, surf the web, even work on projects online is a very real option today.

The Tesla S-class sedan is the test car for a new company, tuxi, that will provide zero-emission vehicle rentals for members of collectives that adopt low-carbon practices as part of an overall lifestyle change.

The Tesla S-class sedan is the test car for a new company, tuxi, that will provide zero-emission vehicle rentals for members of collectives that adopt low-carbon practices as part of an overall lifestyle change.

The Tesla's display shows route and restaurant options on the trip ahead.

The Tesla’s display shows route and restaurant options on the trip ahead.

The many business options for low-carbon transport as part of healthy, low-carbon lifestyles was a great start in looking at how the cleantech sector can create jobs.

Along the way we passed the Siemens plant where wind-turbines are being manufactured for off-shore farms. Below is a shot of the wind turbine plant, and the windmill installed there to power parts of the facility, taken through the window of the EV we were driving.

View of the Siemens plant where large wind turbines for offshore deployment are manufactured in southern Denmark.

View of the Siemens plant where large wind turbines for offshore deployment are manufactured in southern Denmark.

Finally, flying from Billund to London City airport, we passed over the new London off-shore wind farm.

“This is a great day for Britain and a big win for renewable energy,” U.K. Prime Minister Cameron said at the opening ceremony of the wind farm this past July. “The London Array shows you can build large-scale renewable energy projects right here in Britain. This is because when it comes to clean energy, the U.K. has one of the clearest investment climates globally.”

The project is owned by Denmark’s DONG Energy, Germany’s E.ON and the Masdar Group of Abu Dhabi. The farm has a capacity of 630 megawatts, enough to power 470,000 homes, and has been fully operational since April. The consortium predicts that the wind farm will save 925,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

All in all it was a day of travel witnessing, and fuelled by, the use and construction of the clean energy economy.

Now, we need those low-carbon airline fuels, and even better, an improved capacity to travel virtually to meetings, cutting our resource footprints and improving services still further.

This trip highlighted to me the reality of dramatic energy transitions.  What energy transitions—clean and not so clean—are you seeing around you today? Please comment below with your observations.


  1. Ron Davison
    Vista california
    March 16, 2014, 9:17 pm

    When we do these renewable and non renewable power source trade off studies we get great insight.
    Now we know that energy storage is key for CSP or Thermal solar. Concentrated solar that heats media, molten salt, falling sand, sand in a corkscrew feed, and provides the high temperatures for good efficiencies of any heat engine/steam turbine used to make electricity. Add 2x to 10x the storage capacity beyond cost effective #s for the CSP alone. Now add in all the extra energy in wind not captured because of variability output demands on wind turbines and there design.
    Allow the peaky wind energy to be used by the grid and divert CSP outputs to storage during peak wind.
    This is how they are envisioned to be used now.
    But if the wind fleet can be changed overtime and/or as blades need replacing, better designs can:
    to produce more total 5 of wind energy by capturing more peak wind speed energy at the expense of low wind speeds.
    More output total, but fluctuations not ideal for a non smart grid, sources, and loads.
    By dispatching sourced electricity to a lower output on demand at very fast unheard of rates allows two things,
    pass through of peak renewable wind energy to loads in real time. allow for lowering wasted overhead power needed for stability.
    This Source Shedding technology allows for Source Side Management in conjunction with Demand side management to solve the supply/demand problem in real time, with a lower waste factor, because it can react to an oversupply of energy on the grid and instantaneous reduce its positive sourcing to reduce the over supply on the grid.
    And during a deficit ramp up output during net deficit supply/demand power periods. They can modulate changing power rates effectively in both directions when in the middle of it power band output range.
    It must be understood as a three way arrangement where all three are needed.
    Any one missing and the economic advantage disappears.
    1) Storage, mechanical, potential, kinetic, thermal
    2) Heat source, renewable example, CSP-TES thermal storage with tight coupling, if non renewable but not carbon creating, all ready built nuclear or a past site for a better design (Thor!).
    3) Extra wind energy by design of more power capturing designs either narrow band or broadband power outputs.
    Transition to broadband as they get invented.
    4) Use Big-little co location arrays to exployt differnt wind regimes and couple energy between for greater outputs as has been proven at Cal tech with smaller vertical turbine fields. these could be place around the wake field of the large 100 meter towers, bleed paths near the ground between large towers can increase air impedance seen by wind keeping wind from diverting away from blade area and tip edges in the lost fill factor of blades to spaces between towers. Another possible sum is greater than the parts idea?
    The thermal storage also can be coupled with other existing non renewable sources of power such as natural gas, biofuels, oil, and coal. better to have as much CSP heating the thermal storage to reduce pollution.
    Before tar and feathering me for suggesting anything that resembles clean coal. We can have cleaner coal by allowing those modern plants recoup there sunken capitol in an equitable way while organically growing renewables around it. By partnering with incumbent energy producers that provide us our power we can convert them to solution providers, by removing their fear of financial loss of existing assets. (Hard assets only, not stock value, as no one is responsible for valuations.) They should have as anyone has the same investing opportunities in renewable power.
    they can also take there monetized hard assets that are protected and use them to expand in yet another direction of their choosing, in a win for all.

  2. J. D.
    Ohio, USA
    October 2, 2013, 2:42 pm

    Sorry, I meant “fraught with problems?” Also, have the relatively recent telecommunications transitions from a centralized grid model to a more or less “distributed model” (ATT to de-monopolized to universal cellular) been utilized in the projections of what energy transitions could occur abd/or “look like?”

  3. J. D.
    Ohio, USA
    October 2, 2013, 2:24 pm

    Per wind farms, I recently saw an article from a study that noted the rather alarmingly large number of eagles that had been killed by the large spinning blades on the mega-watt sized stations in the US. I could imagine that there would be the same kind of impacts on other raptor species and migrating birds. I would hope that ecological impacts of this kind have been factored into the studies mentioned in the article. We have individualized transportation models and in the past home heating by coal and oil which were supplanted with the large scale centralized grid models. Does clinging to that model necessitate some of the problems of power wasted by excess produced during low demand and transmission losses? Or are smaller, rooftop type solutions too inefficient or just as fraut with problems.

  4. Fred
    October 1, 2013, 2:30 pm

    The Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (http://www.drift.eur.nl/) is working on an approach called “Transition Management.” As they write: ”

    “At DRIFT we conduct interdisciplinary action research on sustainability transitions and transition management. We apply theoretical concepts and academic insights to empower sustainability initiatives in practice. Vice versa, we employ experiences in practice to inform transition theory, to develop new conceptual models and analytical methods. By doing so, we contribute to the field of system innovation and sustainability transition studies.”

    While transitions are driven, perhaps, by goals and pathways, and by alternate forms of energy and resource use–these are in some senses more about the content. An ill-defined pathway is hard to follow. The process of transition, on the other hand, presents an opportunity for creatively redirecting markets and sociocultural norms. DRIFT is a good example of this creativity.

  5. Dan kammen
    Berkeley, CA
    September 30, 2013, 8:57 pm

    Hi A. Gardner,

    It is too bad that you feel that way. The facts contradict your statement, however, as many places (Denmark, Portugal, South Korea, California, Texas, Oklahoma etc ..) all have wind integrated as a central component of their energy mix that is not a simple addition beyond a fossil-fuel base, but instead as a core generating asset.

  6. A. Gardner
    September 29, 2013, 4:51 am

    Wind turbines are only a backup source of power. For many years now I have been pointing to the fact that the UK has and enormous power recource that has not been tapped. The UK is completely surrounded by water with one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. At last I hear they are planning to tap this resource. Just a handful of tidal power generators around the coast of the UK could provide the UK with a full and constant electricity supply. We can then dump the wind turbines, nuclear and coal and gas fired power stations. Use some of this excess power to electrolyse Hydrogen to power cars (electric cars are great but the batteries and recharge rates are a problem and always will be). The UK then becomes completely carbon free.