Science

Future energy

The energy transition. The term is becoming a real buzzword, but what does it really mean? And is it really inevitable? Although we may not have noticed, the process is already in full swing. It is being driven, in large part, by climate change. The challenge we’re facing is both clear and complex: making renewable energy our dominant source of energy, and reducing emissions to zero. Clean and renewable energy, in other words. We are on the verge of a genuine revolution. From electricity to heat, storage and transport: get ready for energy 2.0.

illustratie van meerdere mensen met een stekker in de hand die elektriciteit delen

Imagine waking up in the year 2050. The light switches on automatically when it’s time to get up and the coffee machine is already brewing before you go downstairs. As you drive off in your electric car, the heating in your house automatically switches off and the robot hoover springs into action. This is no longer some futuristic vista: the future is here now. All innovations have one thing in common: they need energy. This will inevitably become one of our greatest challenges in the years ahead: how can we generate and use energy in a sustainable way? How do we make sure there’s enough energy to go around? UU researchers are working on these problems today in order to safeguard the future for everyone.

In my back yard, please!

Solar is expected to become our main energy source, along with wind energy. However, we will need to install a lot of solar panels along the way: 80% of our energy is still generated from oil, coal and gas. ‘If we install solar panels on every roof, we’ll have enough energy for every household in the country’, explains Professor of Solar Energy Wilfried van Sark.

illustratie van een vrouw die zonnepanelen bevestigt

We used to have a ‘not in my back yard’ attitude when it came to generating solar energy. These days, we’re increasingly eager to want solar panels in our back yard — or on our roof. ‘The ultimate form of democracy’, Van Sark calls it: generating your own energy. Resistance to solar panels has never been so low and the aesthetics are improving. ‘Energy-neutral houses aren’t that uncommon these days’, Van Sark points out. In fact: ‘I expect we’ll be increasingly moving towards houses and flats that actually produce energy.’  

However, the diversity and unpredictability of solar and wind energy presents us with a new challenge. The sun doesn’t always shine and actually overloads the grid during hot periods, making it crucial to use and store electricity at peak times.

Cars for climate

While cars have been a major part of our emissions problem up to now, they may soon become part of the solution. In addition to helping avoid the use of fossil fuels, electric cars can also store electricity at peak times and feed it back into the grid during shortages. This allows them to absorb fluctuations while serving an unexpected dual purpose.  

It all starts with smart charging, explains energy scientist Wouter Schram: ‘You need to charge the car when CO2 emissions are lowest.’ For example, you can set your battery so that it only charges when there’s plenty of sun and wind; this will also prevent the electricity grid from overloading during peak periods. ‘Your full car battery can then supply enough electricity to power your house for more than a week’, Schram explains.

A full car battery can actually power your house for a week or more

A major overhaul

We’re not there quite yet, though... After all, some cars and charging stations still aren’t equipped to feed energy back into the grid. Can you already cook or heat your home with electricity? Many households can expect to see some major changes: we’re set to stop using natural gas in 2050. This will also involve the installation of new infrastructure, new heating and cooking systems and more effective insulation. We’ll have to speed things up considerably if we aim to be ready by 2050. ‘Just do the math: 7 million homes in 30 years’ time means we’ll have to adapt over 600 homes a day’, says Robert Harmsen, who is currently researching the transition to gas-free energy. ‘It’s an enormous challenge that’s only getting bigger by the day.’

afbeelding van een huis met windmolens, zonnepanelen en elektrische auto, waarin de elektriciteit met elkaar verbonden is

While home owners are free to start the transition today, some aren’t enthusiastic about the idea or simply don’t have the necessary financial means or their own roof or driveway. In addition to posing a major technical challenge, the energy transition is also a social issue and could potentially lead to greater inequality. Political scientists Sanne Akerboom and Jesse Hoffman are researching civic engagement, opportunities for intervention and energy poverty in an attempt to address this challenge. Hoffman: ‘It’s actually quite difficult to link the current energy challenges to our social targets in a meaningful way. We help policymakers to make that connection in practice by engaging with residents in an active and inclusive way.’

Want to learn more about the energy transition? Check out the longread here.