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A world in transition

Energy systems around the globe are changing in response to new technological developments and environmental and social pressures. Making the most of these changes requires a concerted effort from academia, industry and government — an effort Nature Energy intends to support.

This year opens in the wake of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) and the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The former sets out to reach an agreement on carbon emissions, whereas the latter aims to combat poverty and inequality while protecting the environment. Both address critical sets of challenges with profound implications for the way the world operates. And both require serious considerations about energy.

It's clear that dealing with climate change calls for deep (and, likely, total) decarbonization of our energy system, which entails a fundamental transformation of our infrastructure. It also demands immediate and rapid action, as our window for avoiding the disastrous consequences of carbon emissions is ever shrinking. Yet at the same time, global energy demand continues to rise, particularly in emerging and developing countries, raising concerns about energy security even in the developed world, where one rarely considers that the lights may not come on when the switch is flipped. How do we meet demand and still achieve the required rapid changes when making decisions about energy supply can take years, and the development and construction of energy sources can take even longer?

Science and technology undoubtedly play a vital role. Research efforts continue to furnish us with fresh insights into fundamental phenomena that help us develop better devices and processes for generating or storing energy. For example, new studies of photovoltaics are enabling more efficient cells to be constructed, and presenting cheaper, more flexible approaches to building them; new findings into interfacial or catalytic phenomena generate advances in storage technologies that could bolster deployment of intermittent renewables and reshape the grid; a deeper understanding of materials and chemistry can offer more-efficient routes to the generation of fuels. Technology innovation brings a wealth of new applications, overcoming issues of supply or energy efficiency, allowing us to address many of the challenges we face today and hopefully many of those we aren't yet aware of.

Yet to believe that technology alone will save us is to forget that technologies must be wielded by people. It is not enough to just build and implement new technologies: the way we use, interact with, and think about them is critical as well. Given several options of equal scientific merit, the choice of which to pursue hinges on social, cultural, economic and political factors. Thus, we shouldn't forget that science and technology form part of a bigger and more complicated system, full of important feedbacks and loops. If we can better understand the way that individuals and societies engage with energy on different levels, we can design better tools or deploy them in more appropriate ways, reaping greater rewards.

Consider photovoltaics. Understanding how to improve the efficiency of a solar cell is just one step in the process of increasing the up take of solar power: we must also know how to build modules that are long-lasting and durable; that are cheap to produce at scale and easy to install; or that can fulfil functions that other designs can't. To make solar power competitive in the marketplace, we have to think about subsidies and what level of economic support might be required over what period. There are also issues around where to install solar panels: where are good locations, why do people object to building solar farms near to them, what motivates some people to install solar power and others to refuse to adopt it? Solar power (as well as other renewable sources like wind) also enables individuals, communities, towns and cities to power themselves independently of centralized providers and to become producers of energy as well as consumers, selling excess electricity back to the grid. This gives rise to a number of further challenges for grid operation, business models, regulation and governance. And this is all to say nothing of the additional opportunities that open up when photovoltaics are linked to other technologies, like storage or smart grids. By thinking more carefully at a systems level, combining natural and social science considerations, we can move towards a more integrated, flexible energy system that better fulfills our goals.

No one discipline can truly claim to have all the answers to our energy challenges. What is needed is a multiplicity of voices — a combined effort from many disciplines all trying to understand how we can facilitate the energy transition but also all interacting with one another, sharing the benefits of their wisdom for the mutual good. Of course, this multitude speaks many different languages. Multi- and interdisciplinary studies — of which there are an ever-growing number — help here by playing an increasingly important role in removing the traditional boundaries between groups and broadening the conversation.

By orienting ourselves around a subject, not a discipline, Nature Energy hopes to contribute too. We aim to be a home for the many different voices needed, publishing the best research and opinion on energy issues across the natural and social sciences. Some of these voices can be heard in our Feature on the frontiers of energy research (article number 15020), in which ten experts from different fields present their vision for the near future and the obstacles to be overcome. Elsewhere, this issue contains studies focused on fundamental and applied energy science and on the implications of energy policy. We also present perspectives and opinions on different aspects of the energy system, from carbon capture and storage projects to grid balancing and storage for renewables. We want to publish the research that matters the most to each field but that will also be of interest and influential for others working elsewhere in energy. Through this more thematic approach, with its broad view and readership, we hope we can serve as a forum for the dissemination and discussion of the most pressing energy questions.

Energy is an enormous but exciting field. The transition to the cleaner, greener, fairer energy system of the future is underway. We look forward to helping speed it along.

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A world in transition. Nat Energy 1, 15026 (2016).

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