Research centers to power the future

Profiles of Norwegian science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
Wind turbine on Smøla island near Trondheim.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Fossil fuels are out; the future is in. No matter what one thinks of climate change, we know that fossil fuels are a finite resource and that extracting and burning them causes significant pollution.

How do we wean ourselves off this energy supply that has powered modern society? Norwegian science will provide some answers through two new Research Centers for Environmentally Friendly Energy.

In May, the Research Council of Norway awarded NOK 200 million to these centers from the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. Each center receives funding for five years, after which a review will determine whether or not they can continue for another three years. Additional support comes from partners within the centers, including other researchers and industry.

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), with campuses in Trondheim, Gjøvik, and Ålesund, will host the Norwegian Centre for Energy Transition Strategies (NTRANS). Directed by Professor Asgeir Tomasgard, NTRANS will look at strategies for sustainable energy in the future. What energy options are available? How might we identify and change to the best ones available?

Meanwhile, the country’s capital will headquarter the center called Inclusive Decarbonization and Energy Transition (INCLUDE), directed by Professor Tanja Winther and hosted at the University of Oslo. How could everyone be involved in moving away from fossil fuels? How could justice and fairness permeate the shift in how we view, produce, supply, and use energy?

The ethos behind the centers is to lead the field and to lead the world. The research adds to the backdrop of other Norwegian initiatives leaving fossil fuels behind. Even the sovereign wealth fund, the trillion dollars which Norway has accumulated from extracting and selling oil and gas, is making the transition. For months, Norway has been announcing the slow withdrawal of its investments from companies involved in coal, oil, and gas production.

Fundamental to these changes and to the work of the centers is science covering and contributing technological development alongside insights into people’s choices and actions. No expectation exists of the perfect contraption to solve our thirst for energy. We must instead determine what we might be able to do differently with the knowledge and techniques we have already.

This leads both centers to express the need to consider the entire energy system throughout their work. We know that we cannot rely on fossil fuels forever and that we will continue to need different forms of energy. Renewable and sustainable supplies are essential for society, yet they present their own challenges.

How could we balance large-scale, centralized energy sources, such as wind and solar farms producing electricity to be distributed far and wide, with small-scale and local endeavors, such as each property generating what it needs? The latter combines whatever is suitable locally, which could be photovoltaics on walls and roofs, solar-heated water tanks, heat pumps in the garden, or micro-size biomass, geothermal, or hydro.

Our work does not stop once we determine where our energy comes from. We must also look at reducing how much we use. Everything from light bulbs to appliances continue to be built to consume less electricity. So it saves us money as well.

Making public transit more convenient, safer, more comfortable, and cheaper could encourage less use of private vehicles. If people are able to cycle or walk, then showers in offices and bike lanes separated from traffic and sidewalks would make these activities more attractive. At least for some of the year. Alternative transportation during blizzards, thunderstorms, and the worst temperatures of winter and summer would be essential.

Accepting these options requires a change in our mindset. The science of energy must include philosophy, psychology, behavior, and politics. What truly formulates and drives our decisions alongside the attitudes and values on which these choices rest?

We have survived drastic energy-related changes before. When oil and gas became cheap, many were devastated that these new-fangled horseless carriages would force the obsolescence of our beloved equines. Others refused to board the dangerous flying machines, preferring instead the days-long Atlantic crossing aboard familiar ships.

NTRANS and INCLUDE must never neglect the lessons from our history, nor the connections beyond energy. In doing so, they will ensure that Norwegian science continues to inform and serve everyone.

This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.