Science stories

Tap it ’till it’s dry

or why it’s so hard to transition to sustainable energy

Our livelihoods and lifestyles are relying on intricate socioeconomic systems and need the technical support of infrastructures and services, to be maintained. We spend most of our time indoors, in buildings dependant on multiple variables. If we were to remove the functions of a trivial one, like the hallway light bulb, no one would mind too much. Removing the operation of a more important one, for instance the elevator, would quickly bring disarray and unhappy residents who were forced to take the stairs, possibly carrying their groceries or infants, or both, while panting for breath. If someone needs to move a fridge to the third floor, they would possibly find alternative means to do it. So overall, still, no global crashes here.

Now, say we remove the energy source lighting the bulb or moving the elevator up and down the shaft. No fossil fuel to generate electricity, no lights, no elevator, no fridges, nothing that relies on the grid. The only “powered-up” people would be those relying on renewable energy sources AND are not connected to the main grid. So, basically, approximately zero people in Cyprus would have independently powered houses and businesses. How much time do you think it would take for a zombie-like apocalypse in this scenario?

The vast majority of electricity consumers are connected to large-scale, national grids.

Image by Luca Nardone from

It seems like the only logical thing to do would be to stop using the fuel that’s so harmful to our environment, and so close to depletion, and ensure our living conditions can be sustained in a carbon-free universe. So why are our energy systems still relying on conventional fuel? There’s a twofold reason, the first being that shifting operations at a large scale requires the appropriate infrastructure and takes a lot of time; currently used power plants would need to be converted or decommissioned and although there is a proper procedure to be followed, the reality of legacy environmental problems is looming. Also, huge investments are needed to ensure a sustainable transition, which begs the question: can the transition itself be sustainable if it’s such a burden and it leaves behind so much waste?

The second reason why the transition is not moving faster, is that not many decision makers have a vivid enough imagination to be adequately frightened of the carbon future that awaits us. It’s not that they have never heard of this before; it’s the peer pressure to satisfy the rich guys, or even become one. The fossil fuel agenda is lucrative and there is no denying that, and as long as our generation remains largely unaffected, we may as well make the most of it.

Decarbonization: moving from current economic system to one that sustainably reduces and compensates the emissions of CO₂. The long-term goal is to create a CO₂-free global economy.

Image by Gustavo Fring from

Since we mentioned Cyprus, let’s take this prime example to discuss the fossil fuel agenda. Cyprus is one of those lucky places on earth, enjoying over 300 sunny days per year; in summer it’s hardly ever cloudy and most of the winter is sunny too. The land of promise when it comes to solar technologies, one would think. But alas, the share of renewables in gross final energy consumption was almost 14% in 2019, which is higher than the national target (13%) but still far away from the EU target (20%), and even further away from an idealized energy supply system. You may be thinking, sure, progress is slow but it’s getting there; have you heard about the hydrocarbon reserves discovered recently and the contemporaneous national plans? Millions are being poured into brand new fossil fuel facilities, in order to drain the eastern Mediterranean of all of its natural resources over the course of decades, only to revisit the topic of a systemic energy transition when it is absolutely urgent.

In the grant scheme of things, this situation is completely irrelevant to the planet’s future. The footprint of such a tiny country on the global CO2 emissions is approximating zero, but that is precisely the reason why humanity is driving the planet to an early peak in the naturally occurring temperature cycle. Although everyone is accountable, we like to think that our tiny (but deliberate) indiscretions won’t cause much harm.

So what options are out there to help electricity consumers change their footprint? Off-grid, decentralized generation of electricity from renewables, such as solar panels. The cost of installation and maintenance of renewable technologies is dropping, giving rise to “prosumers”: individuals and businesses that can afford an initial investment, able to both produce and consume their own electricity. Although economic and technological development has taken us from mini-grids to national ones, the road to decarbonization starts at the individual level now.

But things can be complicated on the road to be a prosumer; take for instance Feldheim, this -now- autonomous and self-sufficient village. In their efforts to become independent during the past decades, they had to build their own private network because the utility company serving them refused to sell or lease the part of the grid the community needed. Through EU funding and collaboration among the municipality, local community and the project developer, the region managed to create fully renewable electricity local grids and secure their independence from national, conventionally-fuelled energy supply. Proof that where there is a will, there is a way. Also proof that transitioning to sustainable energy can be challenged by institutions themselves.

Permanently camping is one way to keep off-grid.

Image by Uriel Mont from

Whether we like it or not, we are accomplices to collective social inertia and it can take extraordinary effort to scape the predefined paths others have chosen for us. Hoping for a better tomorrow and actively changing our own habits and preferences, despite being slightly less comfortable, is the only thing we can do as common people, to eventually progress to a sustainable future. On the other hand, if you’re overwhelmed by everything, here’s a Wiki-how on becoming a hermit.

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