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Clean Energy: Many Pathways and Future Challenges

  • Rome
  • 25 October 2023

        The energy transition is bringing unprecedented change to the world’s economies and societies after a century of abundant, reliable and relatively low-cost carbon fuel. The aim of this revolution is to ensure a decarbonization accompanied by environmental sustainability in addition to supply security for citizens and businesses.

        The rise and reduction in cost of renewables has been a success, but one owed to technologies that alone seem not to be able to ensure achievement of the ambitious goals the world – the EU in the forefront – has set for itself. Going electric is obviously going to mean a massive increase in the production of electricity, which faces challenges to the supply continuity and stability that fossil fuels have thus far offered. 

        Similar attention must go to industrial processes and sectors that are going to have a hard time transitioning to electricity over the near or medium term. Moreover, renewables place Europe at risk of going from dependency on Russian energy supplies to dependency on China for technologies and raw materials. 

        Europe and the United States have common aims in pursuing the energy transition, yet strategies differ; starting with the distance between the more incentive-based American approach typified by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the European regulatory and disincentive-based approach embodied in the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). Striking a balance between the two would make it possible to strengthen transatlantic economic cooperation, not least in light of the necessary de-risking of supply chains. 

        The best strategy on a shared horizon of a new clean energy system, even in terms of diversifying the risks associated with each technology, remains that of technological neutrality; considering a combination of pathways as opposed to a single means to decarbonization would make it possible to assess the potential of solutions other than renewables, such as the development of carbon capture, refinement of vegetable fuels resulting from waste or the cultivation of biomass crops on marginal non-arable land and nuclear power.

        There are new opportunities emerging in this area offered by smaller, more flexible plants that are thus more compatible with renewables production peaks but also capable of maximizing their contribution to industry. High-temperature steam generation, for example, is useful in electrolysis and the production of hydrogen, which is fast asserting itself as pivotal to the transition. It is important to reiterate that although there are issues surrounding nuclear energy these concern plant safety and not political and supply security; an element that must be considered in the light of the technological advances already foreseen for the end of this decade. The choice is one that Italy must consider carefully in terms of energy security and diversification of sources, especially in view of the new instability in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the country is still producing half its electrical power with fossil fuels – over 80% when considering overall energy consumption.

        The interest in nuclear power also has major implications at European level. What had been a factor in convergence and cohesion – as represented by the post-War birth of EURATOM – now appears to divide Europe. Yet, progress in the field by some countries could offer an important contribution to common European efforts toward decarbonization, as indicated by the addition of nuclear power to the community’s green taxonomy.

        Nevertheless, the continental framework remains more complex than America’s; with the decline of existing plants, some of which will be closing over the coming years for technical reasons, a persistent mistrust among public opinion is delaying the construction of new reactors. Shifting the question back to the central European debate, in light of the promise of new technologies, would instead make it possible to better assess the costs and benefits of nuclear power, thereby foregrounding the contribution it could make to industry and to common efforts at achieving the energy transition.

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