dcsimg The necessary balance - Ramboll Group

The necessary balance

The vision of a fossil-free society is the guiding star of the green transition. Meanwhile, with renewables accounting for one-fifth of global energy consumption, fossil fuels will remain a vital part of our energy mix in the coming decades. Striking the right balance is a matter of combining renewables with fossil fuels in smart and efficient ways. 

By Morten Lund & Jesper Toft Madsen

The ambition remains clear: The green transition should ultimately lead to a fossil-free society that utilises its resources in the most sustainable manner. However, our current consumption of energy resources demonstrates that this vision is still decades away from becoming reality.

In 2012, renewables accounted for 19% of global energy consumption. Looking to 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that at best renewables will gain a 40% share of total energy consumption. In short, we are in the midst of a slow transition.

“Unquestionably, our ambition to become a fossil-free society should remain firm, but we also need to reach our goals in a smart, responsible way. At this stage, we have to adopt a balanced energy strategy that combines fossil fuels and renewables as sustainably as possible,” says Søren Holm Johansen, Group Executive Director for Markets and Global Practices at Ramboll.

The energy trilemma

Both the political ambition and the actual outlook for future energy consumption point towards the need for a balanced energy supply. In Europe, the globe’s most progressive continent within renewable energy, the EU Commission has proposed a 2030 climate and energy plan that aims for 27% of total EU energy consumption to come from renewables.

Meanwhile, energy demands are mounting in step with the industrialization of developing countries. According to World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2013, energy consumption will increase by one third between 2011 and 2035. Developing countries alone account for more than 90% of the growth.

“Security, sustainability, and economic prosperity – this is the classic ‘energy trilemma’ that we face. WEO-2013 highlights the importance of taking advantage of potential efficiency gains in order to maintain competitiveness,” said Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director, IEA, at the launch of World Energy Outlook 2013 in London.

“Energy efficiency will be essential to getting that balance right – and I am pleased to say that it has become a focal point of energy policies. As we have emphasised in the WEO series in 2013, there are pragmatic strategies that governments and industry can pursue that both reduce energy use and emissions and are either GDP-neutral or positive for economic growth.”

Chicago reduces cooling costs with green roofs

The global energy mix

While a fossil-free society is still an unrealistic scenario in the immediate future, how do we ensure that the transition proceeds intelligently, sustainably and responsibly? The global energy mix consists of a wide range of renewables and fossil fuels, including wind, biomass, solar energy, hydropower, geothermal energy and hydrocarbons like oil, shale gas and other natural gas.

Transport is one sector where fossil fuels will be indispensable for years to come. Bioethanol and other biofuels have been regarded as a means of diminishing the carbon footprint left by road transport, yet biofuels only account for around 3% of global road transport fuels.

According to an IEA roadmap, biofuels have the potential to power a transport transition by supplying 27% of the world’s transport fuel by 2050, but meeting that target would require around one million square kilometres of land – an area the size of Canada. Moreover, using so much land for biofuel crops would put heavy pressure on food crops to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050.

Neither is the most polluting of all energy sources, coal, likely to lose its energy status any time soon. Coal consumption in OECD countries will decrease by 0.2%, but consumption in non-OECD countries will keep rising at an average annual rate of 1.8%, an amount that more than offsets the OECD decrease.

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District heating and cooling can transform cities

There are ways of using less coal. One solution is to replace individual heating and cooling systems with district heating and cooling – local grids fuelled, for instance, by a combination of natural gas and renewable energy sources.

This combination is being used in the Chicago Lakeside project, intended to turn nearly 2.5 square kilometres of Chicago’s Southeast lakefront into an innovative model for green, 21st-century living, based on next-generation infrastructure, architecture and technology.

Ramboll has contributed with a design concept for Chicago with a minimal use of fossil energy, little use of water and a minimum of waste disposal. The masterplan will help shape a liveable city where residents can enjoy sustainable cooling, heating and electricity and invest in energy from local wind turbines.

“Chicago Lakeside is a relevant example of the need to emphasise sustainable systems rather than individual solutions. For the past 20 years, we have become better at finding sustainable solutions from an environmental point of view, but we could be even better at making them sustainable from an energy point of view as well,” says Lars Erik Høgenhaven Larsen, Director of Ramboll Energy Systems.

(Please note that the Chicago Lakeside project was placed on indefinite hold in February 2016, ed.)

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The socioeconomic side of sustainability

Sustainability is not strictly about environmental concerns. The need for a balanced approach to our global energy supply is also rooted in our limited economic resources and societal considerations.

“To keep up the pace of the green transition, we also need to look at what is economically sustainable and socially responsible. And pushing through a green agenda too fast is neither. Therefore, we have to be pragmatic and realistic in our approach,” stresses Søren Holm Johansen.

The German example provides a case in point. Germany, birthplace of energy-neutral passive houses and the largest producer of photovoltaic electricity in the world, has embarked on a journey to replace coal and nuclear energy with wind and solar energy. But the journey comes at a price.

Subsidy costs are estimated at EUR 20 billion a year, a sum that German consumers pay for via their energy bills. As a result, German energy prices have soared by an inflation-adjusted 80% since 2000.

On the upside, Germany has shown that a green transition is indeed possible. According to a 2013 report from the European Environmental Agency on progress towards Europe’s 2020 climate and energy targets, Germany – alongside Denmark, France and Bulgaria – is among the only EU member states credited with making real headway in reducing energy consumption.

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Related services

Oil & Gas
Responsible utilisation of oil and gas reserves is an integral part of Ramboll's service offering. Read more about our services within Oil & Gas.
Ensuring the necessary balance is at the top of the agenda. Also in Ramboll, where we have more than 45 years of experience in the planning, design and implementation of energy solutions. See our services within Energy.


Søren Holm Johansen
Søren Holm Johansen
Group Executive Director
T+45 5161 6600
Lars Erik Høgenhaven Larsen
Lars Erik Høgenhaven Larsen
Vice Director of Global Energy Systems Division
T+45 5161 8365