SPROWT Article | Fazila Ahmad

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Facing the Challenge of Energy Sustainability: The Importance of Science

I fondly recall my childhood in Maputo, the playfulness with friends – games like matacuzana, paulito, mata, terra-mar – the barefoot races down the street, the freedom, the flavors, and, above all, the warmth and easy smiles of the people.

I also remember when the ‘light’ was frequently cut, and how we got used to living, with serenity, through the intermittence of energy.

Today, the situation has changed, but not as much as we would like. In 2021, about 89% of the world’s population had access to electricity (International Energy Agency), but with very significant regional inequalities. In Mozambique, for example, only 30% of the population had access to electricity (World Bank) in 2020, despite its enormous energy potential and the country’s electrification efforts in recent years.

Energy is crucial for economic and social development and for the sustainable future of a nation. It is a basic and essential good in the fight against poverty and social inequalities. It is through energy that industry can be powered, cities illuminated, access to education and healthcare facilitated, and people and goods transported.

However, the production and use of energy have a significant impact on the environment, including the emission of greenhouse gases and the degradation of natural resources.

According to the Global Footprint Network, we are using natural resources at a rate almost twice what the Earth can renew. Unless things change, we will need three Earths to meet our needs by 2050.

Developed countries are responsible for much of the degradation of natural resources and CO2 emissions, as their economic growth occurred at a time when fossil fuels were the only available energy sources, and their real impact on the planet was not fully understood. Today, it’s different.

In 2022, renewable energies already accounted for 29% of the world’s energy mix (International Energy Agency) with a tendency to increase to 35% by 2025. These data show a clear trend toward a more sustainable economy, making it possible for countries to develop socially and economically while protecting the environment.

This is where science plays a fundamental role because it provides us with a systematic and objective approach to understanding the world around us based on rigorous and factual observations and experiments. It gives us a solid foundation for informed decisions and the creation of new solutions. Science is not only a means of discovering technology but also its practical application, innovation in habits, and the way essential goods are produced and consumed.

To reduce global warming and meet international goals – net-zero by 2050 – it is essential to undergo an energy transition and decarbonize society, taking advantage of science and new technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, capture them, and remove them from the atmosphere.

Today, there are already many clean and renewable energy alternatives, such as solar, wind (onshore and offshore), hydropower, biomass, geothermal, or green hydrogen – the latter gaining much prominence, essentially for its potential use in more challenging-to-electrify sectors such as heavy industry or air and maritime transport.

On the other hand, with scientific advances, it is now possible to capture CO2 from the atmosphere or industrial sources before it is released and store it safely (e.g., geological storage) or use it as raw material for the production of renewable fuels.

In the past, the electrical grid worked in a simple way: energy was produced in power plants and distributed to people’s homes in a unidirectional energy flow—from production centers to homes and businesses.

Now, with the decentralization of renewable production, many people are producing their own energy and injecting it back into the grid. This creates a new energy flow in the network, making it bidirectional and increasing the complexity of its management. Now, electrical grids need to deal with energy flowing in both directions, posing challenges to network stability and equipment protection.

Thus, network management needs to be more flexible and capable of adjusting energy production to real demand because energy from renewable sources varies with climatic conditions, is intermittent, and cannot be controlled. To manage this complexity, more advanced technologies are required, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and smart grids.

Science is also essential to increase energy efficiency, contributing with factual and irrefutable evidence about the impact of fossil fuels on the planet, mobilizing society to adopt more sustainable consumption habits, and influencing public policies.

Yes, because the transition to a greener economy must be fair and take into account regional and social differences. Public policies must be designed to promote economic and social equality, create incentives for the use of clean energy sources, finance research and development efforts in universities and laboratories, and invest in education.

STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is crucial to prepare future generations and support innovation and economic growth. Here, governments, but also families, and especially mothers and women, can play a very relevant role in stimulating children’s and young people’s interest in sciences and preparing them for successful careers in these areas.

In summary, science plays a crucial role in building a future with sustainable energy, from the development of technologies and green energy sources to the encouragement of public policies, education, and mobilization of society.

Making it happen will always be within humanity’s reach, and much is still to be discovered. Science is the engine of development, and its fuel is curiosity.