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Overview of the Energy Transition

Published: 18 March 2024

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change we need an energy revolution, one that cuts our dependence on fossil fuels to power our lives.

Birth of the Energy Transition

The energy revolution began surprisingly long ago, in an unassuming building at 57 Holborn Viaduct, London. The year was 1882 and American inventor Thomas Edison had just powered up the first ever public electricity power station, lighting houses and businesses with dazzling new electric lights.

Though his power station burnt coal, and released planet-warming carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, it can be seen as the dawn of the energy revolution because of the way he sent the electricity from the power station to where it was needed.

Edison used a series of rigid iron tubes containing six-metre lengths of copper metal to conduct the electricity - known as Edison Tubes.

Gallery one

Despite using coal as the source of the heat to boil water, which turned to steam, which drove the electrical generator, Edison's revolutionary system established the electrifying method which the world needs to adopt if we are to successfully achieve our low-carbon energy transition: the wholesale move towards electricity to power our energy-hungry human activities.

Low-carbon energy transition

Three steps towards the low-carbon energy transition:

  1. More and more of our electricity needs to be generated by energy sources that do not release carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere – this is known as low-carbon electricity.
  2. We need to use this low-carbon electricity in as many ways as possible, from heating or cooling our homes, to transport, to industrial applications.
  3. We need to make this low-carbon electricity available to everyone on the planet.

We already have the technology and the know-how to successfully transition towards low-carbon sources and uses of energy. The challenge is how fast we can replace our use of high-carbon energy, which releases large amounts of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere, with cleaner low-carbon electricity, which does not.

Wind, water, and sunshine

The most important low-carbon energy sources come from harnessing the power of the elements - the Sun, the wind and water.

Every hour the Sun sends more energy to Earth than we use in a year. Yet to utilise this energy we must first capture it and then move it to where it’s needed. Solar panels can convert the Sun’s energy into low-carbon electricity, either directly in solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or by concentrating sunlight with mirrors and using the heat to drive an electrical generator.

Water, wind Gallery

The power of the wind can turn turbine blades around a shaft connected to a generator. The generator converts the energy of movement (kinetic energy) into low-carbon electricity. 

Wind Images

Like wind, flowing water can also drive turbines to generate electricity. These can range from large hydroelectric dams tapping into rivers, to smaller ‘pumped storage’ hydroelectric power stations, which make use of refillable reservoirs that can help deliver energy when it is needed.

wind images 3

Other potential sources of low-carbon energy include geothermal power, which utilises the heat of the Earth. Also, regular tides provide a predictable source of renewable energy from coastlines where there are strong tidal flows. Turbines can be tethered to the sea-floor or float in the water and generate electricity throughout the day or night. Moreover, the power of the waves can be tapped into, generating electricity from this elemental force. 

Tidal turbine blade from the Orbital Marine Power’s SR2000 vessel that was launched in 2016.
Tidal turbine blade from the Orbital Marine Power’s SR2000 vessel that was launched in 2016.
 	Launching the SR2000 at a shipyard in Belfast. The blades can be seen tucked in at the rear of the vessel. Science Museum Group
Launching the SR2000 at a shipyard in Belfast. The blades can be seen tucked in at the rear of the vessel.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy can provide another low-carbon source of electricity, predictably and reliably. For nuclear fission – which currently powers all our nuclear reactors – there are many considerations, including the high set-up costs and the radioactive waste that is produced, but the process generates electricity without releasing carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere and it can provide a steady supply of energy that complements more variable renewable energy sources. Moreover, continued nuclear fusion experiments around the world have ignited a renewed hope and optimism for recreating the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun here on Earth and harnessing it for the production of electricity.

Sectioned sample of simulated intermediate level nuclear waste. Sliced to show concrete, steel and cut-up fuel rods, 1990. Science Museum Group
Sectioned sample of simulated intermediate level nuclear waste. Sliced to show concrete, steel and cut-up fuel rods, 1990.
Quadrant of Zero Energy Thermonuclear Assembly (ZETA). Science Museum Group
Quadrant of Zero Energy Thermonuclear Assembly (ZETA) nuclear fusion experiment, 1957.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. If there is plentiful renewable energy, such as on a windy day where wind turbines generate more electricity than we can use, this excess can be used to produce ‘green hydrogen’ from water, using a process called electrolysis. This hydrogen can then be stored or transported for later use, either by turning it back into electricity, using a fuel cell, or burning it as a substitute for high-carbon fuels in places where high temperatures are needed, such as in internal combustion engines or kilns.

Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) hydrogen electrolyser from the UK’s first hydrogen refuelling station in Rotherham, which opened in 2015. Science Museum Group
Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) hydrogen electrolyser from the UK’s first hydrogen refuelling station in Rotherham, which opened in 2015.
Red hydrogen fuel cell bus Science Museum Group
Daimler Chrysler hydrogen fuel cell bus used by London Transport as part of a European bus project, 2001-2006.

Energy storage

In addition to hydrogen, energy storage can support the transition to low-carbon electricity generation. Battery storage comes in many forms – from chemical batteries to water batteries, or even ‘gravity batteries’. Energy storage is useful because sometimes people need energy when low carbon sources make little, and sometimes low carbon sources make a lot of energy when people don’t need it. So, by capturing electricity when it is in excess and deploying it when it is needed, this helps balance out the supply of energy with our demand for it.

Solar storage unit made by Powervault in 2015. Science Museum Group
Solar storage unit made by Powervault in 2015.
Drawing of a gravity battery. Green energy is used to lift a heavy weight to the top of the tower and then, when the stored energy is needed, the load is released to generate electricity. Science Museum Group
Drawing of a gravity battery. Green energy is used to lift a heavy weight to the top of the tower and then, when the stored energy is needed, the load is released to generate electricity.

Using energy

Beyond these low-carbon energy supplies and the use of storage, there are a few key sectors where our use of energy must also transition from high-to-low carbon.

Buildings

Creating low-carbon buildings is a crucial part of our energy transition. Whether it is in the materials we choose to build from, or how we modify existing buildings to decrease our dependency on burning fossil fuels, reducing the carbon emissions associated with constructing and running a building is the aim. 

Buildings

Transport

It takes energy to move things around, from people in cars to pineapples in ships. Low-carbon transport includes electric cars and trains, but also bicycles and even walking. Some options aren’t as easily accessible as others, so transforming infrastructure to accommodate low-carbon mobility is an important enabler for successfully decarbonising transport. 

Transport Images

The transition to our future

Other sectors, such as agriculture, fashion, waste management and many more besides – indeed all aspects of our lives – need to experience this profound energy transition if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change on this one planet we call home.

To find out more about all of these stories, and more, visit Energy Revolution: The Adani Green Energy Gallery.