The energy transition will require popular supports

To achieve a decarbonized world, clean energy sources will have to be widely adopted – yet there’s a range of obstacles in the way. A number of EPFL researchers are studying these obstacles and mapping out strategies for getting past them. Here’s a look at some of their findings.
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The first one is financial. Huge investments will be needed to develop new technology and upgrade existing infrastructure. We’ll have to rethink our entire energy system – how power is generated, transformed, carried, distributed and ultimately used. And all this needs to be coupled with incentives for us to simply use less. What’s more, these clean-energy investments must be deployed rapidly and across many industries at once. Against that, our current energy system – based heavily on fossil fuels – has two big advantages. Michaël Aklin, an associate professor at EPFL and holder of the Chair of Policy & Sustainability, explains: “The first one is that it’s already in place. And the second is that it’s been able to operate without having to pay for the true cost of its impact on the climate or the environment. It’s as if two soccer teams are playing against each other on a field that’s clearly slanted against one of them.”

He adds that another, often underestimated, obstacle relates to the coordination and synergies that are crucial for any industry in transition. “New technology requires an entire ecosystem around it: companies to make the parts, assemble them and ship them, and then to take the end product to market,” says Aklin. “The more innovative a technology is, the harder it is to convince businesses to get on board. They’re afraid of being the only ones to invest and take the attendant risks, and that other companies in the supply chain won’t follow. We’re seeing that with hydrogen, for example, where businesses are still dragging their feet.”

Standardizing the standards

Maria Anna Hecher, a researcher at EPFL’s Laboratory for Human Environmental Relations in Urban Systems, is looking specifically at the challenges associated with coordination. She’s studying the factors that encourage consumers to switch to renewable energy, whether by purchasing solar panels, heat pumps, electric vehicles or energy management systems. A study she and her colleagues carried out in 2022 revealed that part of the problem lies with the many different standards used in today’s systems. “You can find a lot of experts for any one given technology, but few that can link all the technologies together,” she says. “It should be pretty straightforward to hook up your electric vehicle to your solar panels, for example, but it’s actually quite difficult.”

The third obstacle – and it’s no small one – relates to our behavior as a society. Fear of change and the unknown can create a lot of inertia, especially on a group level. And there’s the prospect of losing part of your wealth and being faced with a higher cost of living. Aklin points to the largely unpopular carbon tax as one example.

Hecher’s study determined the profile of people who are more likely to adopt clean energy. They’re generally homeowners with children, a good income and a high level of education. They tend to be well-informed, interested in new technology, engaged in societal issues and keen to increase their energy independence. These are people with the financial and decision-making capacity to do so – which is hardly the case for everyone.

“Our study sheds light on the factors that could both encourage and impede the energy transition,” says Hecher. “This is valuable information for breaking down barriers and reaching more of the population.” It’s already clear that energy utilties and public policymakers can play a pivotal role, such as by introducing subsidies. In Switzerland, given the high percentage of people who rent their homes, property developers and landlords can also be key enablers.

The study additionally found that information and trust among consumers will be essential for driving adoption. “Early adopters usually speak with their friends, family members and colleagues before making a decision,” says Hecher. “And the more often they speak with these individuals, the more trust that’s created. Trust can be enhanced further if the companies providing the technology have a local presence and reach out to the community. Finally, events open to the public – like conventions, conferences and industry fairs – can be effective at putting the different energy-transition stakeholders in touch with each other.”

The mighty carbon interest groups

And then there are the political obstacles. Some of them are inherent to the political system – such as Switzerland’s referendums, which give citizens a way of putting pressure on policymakers. “There’s also the fact that special interest groups have an undue influence on how policy is shaped,” says Aklin. “These groups have deep pockets or can mobilize high numbers of people to get their voice heard.”

It’s simplistic to think that introducing new public policy will be enough to spur the energy transition. Aklin believes that policymakers should take their cue from what’s politically feasible and acceptable to citizens. “The energy transition will be extremely slow without popular support,” he says. “We need to design policies that will benefit the key segments of society, thus increasing the policies’ support and creating the conditions for that support to continue.”