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Energy systems


Energy systems

Tapping into synergies across sectors and applications


A future low-carbon energy system will be more diverse and complex. Efficiently integrating different sectors and technologies is critical, because technologies interact and depend on each other:

  • More variable electricity generation such as solar and wind will require a more flexible energy system as a whole.
  • Deployment of electric vehicles will link the transport sector and user behaviour with the electricity sector.
  • Greater use of electricity for space conditioning (both heating and cooling) will increase electricity demand.
  • New energy carriers such as hydrogen will be introduced into transport, buildings and power generation.

In this context, “systems thinking” is essential to explore opportunities to leverage technology deployments within existing and new energy infrastructure. Enabling and encouraging technologies and behaviour that optimise the entire energy system, rather than only individual parts of it, can unlock tremendous energy efficiency and economic benefits. In three chapters – on heating and cooling, flexible electricity systems and hydrogen – ETP 2012 delineates the technological interdependencies and potential synergies to be harnessed across sectors and applications.

  • District heating and cooling networks, support energy system decarbonisation. In combination with daily and seasonal storage, these networks open up opportunities beyond co-generation for other low-carbon technologies like heat pumps or solar heating and cooling to tap into energy networks that interact with the electricity and transport sectors.
  • Heat pumps offer large efficiency gains, as they draw upon virtually “free” energy in the air or the ground. Clever operation of such systems may shave 25% off peak demand, highlighting the benefits of systems thinking.
  • Smart grids and demand response minimise infrastructure needs by optimising generation and network utilisation as well as providing operational flexibility in the electricity system. Investments on smart grids deliver a 2:1 to 4:1 return on investment depending on the region.
  • Enabled by smart-grid technologies, demand response can theoretically provide 50% to 300% or more (depending on the region) of the flexibility required for electricity grid balancing (regulation and load-following) needed to 2050.
  • Hydrogen may become an attractive storage option for surplus electricity from variable renewables. In the 2DS, 14% of global electricity production from variable renewable sources is used to produce hydrogen.
  • To tap into the potential of system thinking, a crucial step is to approach cross-sectoral human capital and knowledge, including policymakers, urban planners, engineers, designers, architects, technicians, installers and end-users.


Moreover, “systems thinking” is key to unlocking synergies between energy, transportation, water, waste and communication infrastructure.

Download PDF version: Factsheet ETP 2012 - Systems Thinking