Capacity Building Drivers for Power Engineering Education to Deal with Climate Change
By IEF Member Rafael Amaral Shayani
PhD Professor – Electrical Engineering Department – University of Brasilia, Brazil
Humanity is going through a period of maturing; increasingly, new perceptions are changing the degree of consciousness in society. Several concepts that have been valid for decades are now questioned and new paradigms are being adopted, which is expected of a society in constant evolution. The world is increasingly interconnected, and the pressures that emerge from the process of transition from a divided world to a long-term united world are felt in international relations bringing about profound ruptures in structures, regulations, and systems unable to serve the interests of all peoples.
The energy challenge facing humanity today differs vastly from past decades. With the increase of greenhouse gas emissions by various sectors of society, including the energy sector, there is a real concern with sustainable development and with the possibility of future generations not having the same resources that are available to the current society.
One of the signs that humanity is developing a more mature awareness can be seen in the creation of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which indicate the priority points for the global agenda in the period 2015-2030 . SDG 7 recognizes the importance of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, indicating the need for advances in the use of clean and accessible energy. Likewise, SDG 13 emphasizes the need for action against climate change, not only by the energy sector, but by all sectors involved.
SDGs 7 and 13 place before humanity challenges of formidable dimensions; for example, guaranteeing energy growth in a sustainable way, in harmony with the environment; promoting energy security with low tariffs and, at the same time, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from the energy system; and ensuring sufficient energy for developing countries so they will have the necessary infrastructure for growth in a sustainable and economically viable way. Such inquiries are some of the main dilemmas of society.
But the question is even more complex! The maturing of mankind has evolved into an awareness that the actions taken should not be evaluated as to whether or not they have achieved an end, but also how they collaborate with or damage other aspects of society. Such a view is portrayed in the great paradigm shift presented by the SDGs, which is that the goals are integrated and indivisible! Each goal is related in some way to several others, and it is not acceptable for one goal to be achieved over another. There is no more room for fragmented visions!
This raises other aspects. In addition to preserving the environment, how does the energy sector relate to: eradicating poverty, gender equality, innovation, reducing inequalities, sustainable communities, responsible consumption and production, peace, justice, and effective institutions? Several universities around the world are already modernizing their curricula so that students of electrical power systems engineering can be prepared for the new challenges of the energy sector. However, the world is not yet on track for achieving all 169 targets of the SDG. To do this, it is necessary to reshape the global energy system to a net-zero CO2 emissions sector .
This paper aims to propose new directions for the global energy system, based on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and international directives of the Paris Agreement, in order to identify the capacities that must be imbued into power engineering undergraduate students to deal with the energy issues related to climate change.
Characteristics of the Energy Sector’s Current Growth Model
It is possible to identify some characteristics of the energy sector’s current growth model:
● humanity requires increasing amounts of energy;
● currently, this energy comes essentially from fossil fuels;
● the growth of renewable energy sources is still lower than the growth of consumption, so there is a growing use of fossil fuels; and
● there is an increase in the emission of CO2 by the energy sector.
Today, as the use of fossil fuels increases with a consequent increase in CO2 emissions, renewable energy sources are, still timidly, used only as an alternative. These findings lead to the conclusion that the energy system is not yet effectively in transition towards a low carbon economy.
This worrying scenario, in which the energy system has remained practically the same throughout the last decades with a prospect of little change for the future, can be explained by the fragmented conceptual model adopted by the sector’s agents. This can be summarized as: generating energy is an end in itself. This way of reasoning, that more energy available to society is better for development and prosperity and that energy is an essential public service that must be offered in abundance, is essentially based on technical aspects aimed at ensuring energy security. With this line of reasoning, resources should be exploited to the maximum, especially the least costly resources.
This fragmented conceptual model can be defined by the following characteristics:
● a mostly technical vision of energy resources;
● concern about energy security;
● planning to support the trend of energy growth;
● a fragmented vision, where the generation of electricity is disconnected from its use and its impacts on society and the environment, which are treated as externalities; and
● energy systems designed primarily by engineers.
New International Guidelines for Changing the Energy Sector’s Direction of Growth
In order for the energy sector to meet the challenges of a growing demand without damaging the environment and at the same time helping to promote the other SDGs, a drastic modification of its direction is necessary. Continuing to increase fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions must give way to a new integrated policy seeking what will be best for society as a whole.
In 2015 during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21), 195 countries meeting in France enacted a new and important guideline, known as the "Paris Agreement" . This document outlines the efforts that countries must make to contain global warming. These actions directly affect the way in which energy planning is carried out as noted in:
Paris Agreement, Article 6
Parties recognize the importance of integrated, holistic and balanced non-market approaches being available to assist in the implementation of their nationally determined contributions, in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, in a coordinated and effective manner, including through, inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building, as appropriate.
Paris Agreement, Introduction
Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.
This innovative approach presents completely new guidelines for energy planning. The fact that these guidelines are radically different from the current model is understandable and even expected, as one can see that the energy sector is growing by inertia, without prospects for profound changes. So, to modify the route of a large mass operating in inertia, it takes a great shock to effectively change its course.
The "importance of integrated, holistic and balanced non-market approaches" is a major watershed. The inertia of the current system, based on market approaches, presupposes that renewable energy sources should only be used when their direct cost of production is cheaper than conventional fossil sources, which are favored low energy tariffs. This explains the still timid growth of renewable sources and the few efforts to value their environmental and social benefits, which are considered "externalities" when a fragmented view of the electric power sector has the production of energy as an end in itself.
A holistic approach to overcome the faults with this model is essential as the impacts of the energy sector affect the planet as a whole by emitting gases into the atmosphere. Consider the worldwide emission of CO2 with fossil fuel combustion by region . For example, the emission of CO2 per capita in Brazil is lower than several other countries. The traditional view is based on the idea that more developed countries have coal-based energy sources and have emitted large amounts of CO2 to ensure their economic growth. Therefore, by a principle of reciprocity, Brazil, which currently has a cleaner matrix than many other countries, would feel it has the right to increase its emissions to have the energy needed to grow, as long as it continues to emit less than more developed countries.
The lack of a holistic approach, while maintaining a fragmented outlook, will give all developing countries the right to increase their CO2 emissions, justifying the increased use of fossil fuels. However, in this way, total emissions will never be reduced, and society as a whole will be undermined. The situation requires a global view. Since the climate issue affects everyone, people must consider the Earth as one country and human beings as its citizens, so that, in a joint effort, everyone can take the necessary measures to reverse the situation.
This global vision, where national interests of energy security must give way to actions aimed at ensuring the sustainable development of society as a whole, challenges the current paradigm. Nevertheless, a global vision is necessary to ensure sustainable development and assure social justice. Thus, the Paris Agreement adds the importance of "capacity building". These new capabilities require profound changes even within universities, especially in the way engineers study energy planning.
A New Paradigm of Growth for the Energy Sector
The current world energy system stands in the way of society's efforts towards a more prosperous, just and sustainable society. There is an urgent need to change the direction of the energy system in light of recent guidelines adopted by virtually every country in the world (SDGs and Paris Agreement). Thus, the energy system needs to be redirected to meet the demands of society. This requires a new paradigm of growth in the energy sector. Table 1 presents a possible new paradigm and a comparison of the characteristics of the current planning paradigm.
Building Capacity in Undergraduate Engineering Students
The fact that the energy system has been practically the same since its inception is partly related to the traditional training that electrical engineering students receive at universities. Ever though engineering is a traditional and important profession for ensuring the growth of infrastructure within a country, there is a need to modernize university programs so as to train professionals with new capabilities required by current demands.
Often students choose engineering programs because they have a desire to create something new that promotes the progress of society. They still do not know what they can do, but they hope that the university program will open up a range of possibilities that will enable them to achieve great deeds for humanity. In order for the electric sector to be able to align itself with the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as search for social justice and world peace, it is necessary for electrical engineering students to be made aware of these issues and to study them during undergraduate programs as noble challenges to be overcome. A new professional profile must be formed to deal with new problems whose old solutions are no longer sufficient.
In order for electrical engineering students to understand the challenges to be overcome, they need to know the effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, which are related to global warming. By understanding the social and environmental issues that relate to these problems, students can rescue their initial motivation that inspired them to study engineering and put their creativity and potential into the search for solutions for the betterment of the world!
Traditional energy planning must give way to a new format focused on the human being and seek to meet the demands of society, not only in energy, but also in environmental and social issues. For this, an interdisciplinary study of energy is crucial, especially addressing the content of human and social sciences in electrical engineering programs. Only then can new professionals make a profound change of direction towards sustainable development in the electric sector.
 United Nations, “Sustainable development goals”, 2017
 Independent Group of Scientists appointed by the Secretary-General, 2019. Global Sustainable Development Report 2019: The Future is Now – Science for Achieving Sustainable Development. Glob. Sustain. Dev. Rep. 2019
 United Nations Convention on Climate Change, “Paris Agreement,” 2015
 International Energy Agency, “Key world energy statistics 2017,” 2017
Last updated 14 August 2020