Tech Insights

Putting the Energy Transition in Perspective

March 21, 2023 by John Cooper

To put the energy transition in perspective, some questions must be answered–like, how will we master producing, distributing, and consuming energy in a new world of decarbonization?

I’ve been thinking about energy transition for a long time–decades, in fact–and because, by nature, I’m intensely curious and a deep thinker, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about the topic. 


Power pylon. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


We must consider where we stand on the question: “How will we master a new way of producing, distributing, and consuming energy, one that doesn’t destroy our planet?” 

Of course, there are as many variations of this question as human brains on the planet. And others may reject the question, asking, “Do we have a problem at all?” 

My perspective is that decarbonization has become a universal, urgent imperative.  


Energy Transition vs. Transformation

Transition is “the pathway and process between two different places or states of being.” But transformation is something entirely different. It’s helpful to distinguish because “transition” is not the same as “transformation,” even though these two words are often used almost interchangeably. 

I describe transformation as “the dramatic change in the quality or being from one state to another,” where we could say that going from gas lamps and candles to the incandescent light bulb was a transformation in our approach to darkness. Such a dramatic change vaulted Thomas Edison to the pinnacle of human achievement. 

Once that lightbulb was introduced as an effective innovation in lighting, the transition began with all its thorny questions. How should we make electricity to power the light bulb? What a dramatic transition that proved to be, with Edison developing multiple patents associated with electricity generation, wiring, switches, and light bulb design, ultimately promoting small urban lighting districts running on DC power. Meanwhile, Westinghouse, Tesla, and later, Insull gradually got behind ever larger generators powered by water turbines, combustion turbines, AC power distribution, and monopoly economics. Our entire electric industry was forged during this transition into the Electricity Era. 


Age of electricity. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


And so successful were we that in modern times, generations later, we hardly think about where electricity comes from or how we get it, that is, until the power goes out and we’re left back in the dark and the cold. And so, we ask fundamental questions like, “How did we get here? Does this way still work for us? Is it time to change? How much change is best?” And so on and so on. We set out by first dissecting transition because it is so difficult and complex, fraught with the risks of missteps, but also very urgent now with the pressure to get it right and right away. 

We’ve now arrived at a historic shift like that faced by those now iconic historical figures. We stand collectively at the base of a mountain looming in front of us, trying to determine the best way to go up. Get it right, and we will continue our journey, putting Change Mountain behind us. Get it wrong, and we flounder with potentially disastrous results. Talk about motivation. 


The 4 Ds: Decarbonization, Decentralization, Democratization, Digitalization

The Energy Transition with a capital E and a capital T defines a fundamental paradigm shift in our approach to energy on all fronts, but four stand out. 

Decarbonization is about shifting from burning fossil fuels to drive turbines to make electricity or to power engines to move cars and trucks towards leveraging high tech and innovation to do the same but without damaging carbon emissions


Power plant emissions. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


Decentralization is about making energy at a much smaller scale, much closer to where it’s consumed, rather than distributing it over great distances.  

Democratization is about organizing a new economic energy system independent of large institutions and monopolies, more as a high-value service than as a low-cost commodity. 

Digitalization is about leveraging data for more precision in a complex high information environment, avoiding the guesswork and imprecision that defined 19th and 20th Century low information system design and operations. 

In each of these four Ds, we’re executing a 180-degree turn away from the system set up 150 years ago–that is the nature of the transformation. How we do that is the nature of the transition.